Quarterback competition gave way to attrition Thursday at Tennessee.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Nick Stephens quit the team with little more than a week remaining in UT's first spring practice under new coach Derek Dooley.
"In light of the way the first eight practices have gone and some of the competition we have created, he doesn't want to be here," Dooley said after practice. "It was an amicable discussion.
"He'll probably go look at some places that can assure him of a starting position. We hate to lose Nick but I certainly understand."
Stephens told the News Sentinel in a telephone interview he probably would transfer to a school in his home state of Texas.
His departure leaves junior college transfer Matt Simms as the leading candidate to succeed Jonathan Crompton as UT's starting quarterback. He will compete with freshman Tyler Bray, who, like Simms, was given more practice reps with the first team Tuesday, after the coaches evaluated last Saturday's scrimmage.
The loss of first-team reps set the stage for Stephens' exit.
"It made me sick," Stephens said. "It was probably one of the hardest things I've had to cope with in a long time, especially since I felt like up until that scrimmage I was having a really good spring."
Stephens, who backed up Crompton last season, admitted after the scrimmage that he had performed poorly.
"I was just playing uptight," he said. "I'd never really played like that.
"To me, it was like that was not fun but I felt like I had established myself pretty well in the seven practices before that. I wasn't expecting any major changes. When that happened, I was surprised."
Stephens said he had discussed his play with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who also was an assistant under Kiffin.
"He just said 'work on timing,' " Stephens said. "That was really the only thing he was telling me to work on. When he was telling me that, it just kind of backed up the thoughts in my mind that I was playing pretty well - of course, minus that scrimmage. But I'll be the first one to take the blame for that scrimmage."
Dooley also was surprised. He didn't expect Stephens to make a decision before the conclusion of spring practice April 17.
"What I told Nick, I wished he had played it out and competed through the spring," Dooley said. "But it's a fifth-year quarterback who hasn't played. So I can understand the emotion.
Stephens played sparingly last season behind Crompton, who won the starting job in preseason under former coach Lane Kiffin. In 2008, Stephens started six games after Crompton played poorly in the first month.
But he couldn't hold the job for the remainder of the season. His last start at UT was against South Carolina in the ninth game of 2008.
Although Stephens had an advantage in experience over Simms and Bray, he lost ground this spring, but not just because of that one scrimmage, according to Dooley.
"It was a compilation of seven practices (and the scrimmage)," Dooley said. "Certainly, you give the scrimmage a little more weight because it is a game situation. The important thing is do you see a consistent trend when you evaluate. If someone has a bad scrimmage, if there wasn't a consistent trend, maybe it won't alarm you as much."
Dooley said he didn't feel as though Stephens thought the coaches had "written him off" in the quarterback competition but that "he didn't want to risk (staying at UT past the spring semester)."
"Because of that, he would rather just go play down at a smaller school (where he would be eligible this fall)," Dooley said.
Dooley didn't consider the possibility of Stephens leaving in re-allocating the first-team reps following the scrimmage.
"It was in my mind that it was not easy for a fifth-year senior (to lose first-team snaps)," Dooley said. "I told him (about the decision) first. I think the best thing to do is be honest. I was being very honest about what we were doing and what our evaluation was.
"I didn't think it was fair to him to string him along in case we needed him if he was a backup. The right thing to do is to be honest.
"Our program will be fine."
But the program is shorthanded following the second head-coaching change in the last two years. Stephens is the third prominent player to leave the Vols this spring, although sophomore running back Bryce Brown's status is still murky.
Sophomore Aaron Douglas, the only returning starter in the offensive line, quit the team for personal reasons. Brown, Kiffin's most heralded recruit, has not participated in spring practice and is expected to transfer.
John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Dave Hooker contributed to this report.