KNOXVILLE -- The slightest writing on the wall was more than enough to scare off a fifth-year senior with only one chance left to start as a college quarterback.
A few days after a temporary demotion from the first team in Tennessee's depth chart, Nick Stephens approached first-year coach Derek Dooley and asked for a release from the Volunteers.
Dooley asked Stephens to delay his decision until at least after next Saturday's Orange and White game, but the program's only experienced quarterback decided to go ahead and leave. Dooley indicated that it was an amicable parting of the ways.
"He didn't want to run the risk of not playing his senior year," the coach said after Thursday's indoor practice. "He's been trying to get on the field his whole career, and he just felt like it was too risky to go through another season. He just wants to play. 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 it. Any time a fifth-year quarterback is still trying to get on the field, it's not uncommon for those emotions to come through."
Dooley said his only surprise was that Stephens approached him before the end of spring practice.
Staff File Photo by Angela Lewis UT quarterback Nick Stephens was replaced after throwing two interceptions in the game against Wyoming at Neyland Stadium on Saturday. Wyoming won the game 13-7.
"I told Nick that I wish he'd have played it out and competed through the end of spring, and then based on what our analysis was at the end of spring, I could certainly understand how he felt," Dooley said. "But this is natural. It's a fifth-year quarterback who hadn't played, and you go play football to play, so I understand the emotion part of it.
"The best thing is to be honest, and that's what I was. I was very honest about what we were doing, and what our evaluation was. That's what's fair to him. It's not fair to string him along just to keep him here, in case we needed him if he was indeed a backup."
Stephens was by no means entrenched as a backup, but he'd generally been outplayed by junior college transfer Matt Simms all spring. Simms on Tuesday starting taking a bulk of the No. 1 repetitions that had belonged to Stephens the first two weeks.
"It's definitely a bigger opportunity for me, but we never want someone to leave this program," Simms said. "Nick and I became good friends over the short time that I've been here. He's a good guy and a good football player, and I hope the best for him."
Simms said he and most teammates were taken aback by the timing of Stephens' decision.
"You never see something like this coming," Simms said. "You expect to come here every day, and the same guys are here. It's unfortunate.
"I had no indication at all. I just kind of came in here today, and the word on the street going around was that this was a possibility. And then with all you (media) guys here, I guess it's official."
Left tackle Dallas Thomas agreed with Simms' statement that UT "can't just sit around and dwell on the bad stuff."
"We've just to keep on building, day after day," said Thomas, Simms' roommate. "If he left, he left. That's not my problem. That's Coach Dooley's problem. He's got to take that up with him, and I guess that's what he did. We'll just keep working.
"All we can do is move forward."
Stephens is UT's third high-profile offensive departure during Dooley's short tenure. Freshman All-America offensive tackle Aaron Douglas and highly touted young tailback Bryce Brown also left the program before spring practice -- though Brown hasn't publicly eliminated the possibility of returning to the team.
"I expected attrition, certainly. And hey, look, this isn't the first time we've had attrition here," Dooley said. "Over the last three years, there's just been an inordinate amount of attrition, and to say it hasn't hurt the program is not being forthright. Of course it has.
"Some natural attrition is a healthy thing. It's going to happen at big programs. But certainly, what's happened here over the last three years is not common. What I hope is that we get our arms around it at some point, and we get a little stability. And I expect that to happen."
Dooley maintained that he still felt "great" about the future of his program, and he took a slight break from the seriousness of Thursday's news to joke about entering the season with a junior college transfer and true freshman Tyler Bray at quarterback.
"Hey, it fits right in with the theme," the coach said with a chuckle. "We're embracing it. It's like ... 'What's next?'
"But I feel like we've still got two really good, talented players, and they just need time and experience to develop."
Attempts to contact Stephens on Thursday night weren't immediately successful.
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