KNOXVILLE — Nick Stephens worried for hours that he’d lost an entire summer, but the University of Tennessee quarterback said last week’s wrist injury won’t even derail his entire spring practice.
Stephens, one of three contenders to start for the Volunteers next season, fractured a bone in his right (throwing) wrist by landing awkwardly from an agility-drill tumble.
“I just lost my footing, tried to catch myself and just caught it a weird way,” he said. “Just one of those things, I guess.”
Quick X-rays eased initial concerns that UT’s three-man quarterback competition had whittled down to Jonathan Crompton and Chattanooga’s B.J. Coleman.
The team opened spring practice Tuesday and will work again Thursday and Friday before taking a week off for spring break. Stephens said he’d like to return by the following week. He could have the cast off at that point, but considering his position and throwing-wrist injury, a transitional rehabilitation period could be necessary.
“I don’t have an exact date on (Stephens’ return) ... but I anticipate he’ll get a lot of spring practices in,” first-year coach Lane Kiffin said.
Stephens, who started six games last season between Crompton’s two stints under center, remained optimistic about the situation. Teammates would probably worry if the brash, big-armed Texan acted differently.
“I feel like if I can get back in time and get my wrist and my hand right. Then if I play well I’ll have an opportunity (to start),” Stephens said.
All three quarterbacks said they believed coaches were genuinely opening the starting position. It was fair to question whether Coleman had that chance last season, when he played sparingly at Vanderbilt and ran a rudimentary package.
“This is something that’s important to me,” Coleman said before Tuesday’s practice. “It means a lot to me to play in my home state of Tennessee. That’s what I’ve kind of got on my shoulders, and that’s what I enjoy.
“I enjoy those pressure situations, and we’ll see who comes out on top at the end of spring.”
Added Stephens: “No matter what their position is, no matter how old someone is, everyone feels like they have a chance to compete. And that’s all you can ask for, really.”
Kiffin said the starting spot must be won under fire. He said Crompton and Coleman won’t wear no-contact jerseys, though Stephens’ situation could be different.
“We’re not going to protect anybody. We’re not good enough to do that,” Kiffin said. “Maybe someday that happens down the road, but right now we’ve got to figure out who can play. We don’t know enough about our players.
None of these players have done enough, outside of Eric (Berry), to be able to say that they know how to really perform at a high level. And so we’ve got to figure it out from every position, who can play for us. I think when you do that, you’ll find surprises. I think there’ll be guys, some of our players in this room, where you’ve thought, ‘Boy, maybe they haven’t done much before,’ and they surprise you and shock you, and all of a sudden be playing more for us. And some guys on the other end that maybe have played a bunch of games here and a bunch of snaps and get beat out.”
Crompton said he was “100 percent” refreshed after last season’s shockingly sour performance.
“It’s a totally new ballgame,” he said. “That’s how the whole team’s going about it, offense and defense. We’re learning and competing against each other, but we’re having fun while we’re doing it. I think that’s one of the big things this coaching staff has brought to us.”
The team’s pass-catchers still aren’t publicly stating preferences in the quarterback derby.
“Last year, we really didn’t know who our quarterback was, either,” said rising junior receiver Gerald Jones, who took some snaps himself. “The hardest part about it is, it’s such a guessing game that you can’t really build chemistry with the quarterback that is going to be on the field come game time. It forces you to work harder, simply because you don’t know who’s going to be the quarterback next year.”