October 12, 2008

Stephens shows progress, promise

ATHENS, Ga. -- Tennessee offensive coordinator Dave Clawson couldn't classify quarterback [/db]Nick Stephens[/db]' Southeastern Conference debut as a complete success.

Only, however, because of what Clawson considers a not-so-minor technicality.

"The bottom line is the job of the quarterback is to get the win," Clawson said. "Collectively, we didn't do that."

Still, it was hard to ignore that Stephens made noticeable improvements in his second career start Saturday, standing out on an increasingly anemic offense that failed to produce enough points for the Volunteers in a 26-14 loss to 10th-ranked Georgia at Sanford Stadium.

The redshirt sophomore from Flower Mound, Texas, who replaced junior Jonathan Crompton as UT's starting quarterback in a 13-9 victory over Northern Illinois on Oct. 4, completed 13 of 30 passes for 208 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Bulldogs.

Among the highlights of Stephens' first road appearance was a perfectly placed 60-yard strike to Denarius Moore -- their second connection for 50-plus yards in as many weeks -- that set up a 2-yard touchdown pass to Gerald Jones.

Stephens later capitalized on an interception and 54-yard return by sophomore safety Eric Berry, rolling to his left to find Lucas Taylor in the corner of the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

"I felt like we threw the ball pretty well in the second half," Stephens said. "We hit some open guys and were making some plays. They were dropping eight guys (in coverage), and we still made some plays. We've just got to go out and get better offensively."

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer couldn't complain about Stephens' performance, considering it came without much help from a running game that ended the day with 1 yard on 15 attempts.

"I think every day that Nick goes out there is a building block," Fulmer said. "He competed, made some plays. We rigged up some plays that worked fine. He's not getting a lot of help from the run game. It's not Nick. It's not anything in particular. It's unbelievable that we have struggled as much as we have struggled offensively."

Jones, who had a team-high four catches for 68 yards, credited Stephens for the limited offensive success the Vols had against the Bulldogs.

"If it wasn't for Nick," Jones said, "we wouldn't have scored."

Stephens threw for more than 100 yards in each half -- 101 in the first, 107 in the second -- but completed only eight of 20 passes after halftime as Tennessee scrambled to piece together a rally while having the ball for only 6:04 of the final 30 minutes.

"I think (Stephens) played very well," Jones said. "He made some big throws, made some big plays, especially when Lucas caught the touchdown. He's all right. He's going to be all right. With a lot more repetition and a lot more experience, he's going to be just fine. He's playing like a leader."

Stephens was sacked twice but once again finished without an interception.

"He's doing some good things," Clawson said. "I think he played better than a week ago, and against stiffer competition."

That's no consolation to Stephens, who couldn't take much pride in making progress in a game that ended with the Vols failing to pick up their first SEC win of the season.

"If you're a competitor, you hate losing," Stephens said. "(Losing to Georgia) is no less disappointing than any of the other ones. Just because I'm starting doesn't make it any more disappointing. I want to win no matter who's playing.

"It's time to get back to work and get this thing turned around."

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