KNOXVILLE — No bitterness or bad taste. No finger-pointing or foul language. Just handshakes and hugs.
Disappointment, not anger.
Nick Stephens doesn’t want to play college football anywhere other than Tennessee, but the rising fifth-year senior’s desire to start at quarterback overcame his love for the Volunteers and the people associated with their program.
Stephens fell down the depth chart this week after taking a vast majority of the first-team repetitions through seven spring practices, and the fear he’d never retake the top spot caused him to sit down with first-year coach Derek Dooley on Thursday and ask for a transfer release. Dooley granted him one and wished him well in the future — a future that probably will include NCAA Division II football. Stephens has one season of eligibility left and can’t sit another out.
I spoke with Stephens for 10 minutes Friday morning about his past, present and future, and he was every bit as open as he always was during his UT career. I’ll say this much for Stephens — he speaks his mind. That’s a refreshing quality. I do believe his story and his reasons for leaving, though my opinion is typically inconsequential.
Here is the full transcript of my talk with Stephens.
Q: What did your time at UT mean to you?
STEPHENS: “I love it here, and the reason for that is the people here are so great. People like the fans here at every game and everyone that has to do with the program, it just makes it a special place. And it’s going to be a special place in the future for anyone that continues to come here.”
Q: But obviously things didn’t work out here for you on the field? How did this decision happen so quickly?
STEPHENS: “I sat down with Coach Dooley on Monday, and he told me the reps were going to be changed up. I was surprised, honestly. But I took it, and I was like, I’m going to get these (smaller) reps that he told me I’m going to get, and I’m going to go out there and get this spot back, and I’m never going to look back from there.’ But then Tuesday practice came, and I didn’t practice as much as I thought I was going to. And then Wednesday comes, and the same thing happens.
“Just standing there on the sideline after taking a ton of first-team reps the first seven practices, it just got to me. I couldn’t just stand there and watch my team. It just messed with my mind. It’s something where I talked to my parents about it, and I wanted to make sure that I was going to get an opportunity to play my senior year, regardless of where it was, because I obviously haven’t really played like I’ve wanted to.
“We had to make that decision and just do what was right for me.”
Q: You said Thursday night that this was the “hardest decision” you’d ever had to make. Do you still feel that way after a full night to reflect?
STEPHENS: “Absolutely. I think it would be the same thing for anybody else leaving here at any point in time. The thing that makes it hardest is just the people you come to know, and the people you come to love, and the people that start to become part of your family. You look at them like they’re your family, and when you leave them, it is like you’re leaving a piece of your family behind.
“It’s something a lot of people have had to go through, though, and it’s only going to make you stronger.”
Q: Derek Dooley described this split as “amicable.” Do you agree with that?
STEPHENS: “Yeah, it was. I think he kind of understood where I was coming from. I think he put himself in my shoes. I don’t have much time. I’ve got to start weighing my options of where I’m going to go, and that was one of the bigger factors — other than just standing there and not really feeling like part of the team — that made me have to go ahead and start looking around for whatever place is best for me.
“He was pretty understanding about that, and I appreciated it.”
Q: Since you have to transfer to the Division II level if you want to play immediately, are you looking at the Lone Star Conference? Several top D-II programs are in Texas, and most of them play in that league.
STEPHENS: “That’s something we’ve looked into heavily, with a couple of different teams in that conference. That seems to be one of the better conferences at that level. I’m excited. I really am ... not so much about these next couple of weeks. They’re going to be really tough. But once I get there, I think I’m going to kind of feel like it’s a fresh start, and I’m kind of looking forward to that in a way, just to go out there and have fun and just play.”
Q: Have you gotten support from your UT teammates the past two days?
STEPHENS: “Absolutely. I was sitting at my apartment catching up on some work yesterday (afternoon), and I just kept catching myself looking up at the clock every 10 minutes and saying, ‘That’s what I’d be doing right now ... practicing.’ It was just kind of weird. Then, when practice was done, I was just hit with a ton of text messages from guys just giving me their support.
“Honestly, that’s what made it even harder than it was, because it shows how tight you are with a bunch of guys, and how much they really care for you.”
Q: You’ve always liked spread, pass-happy offenses. Do you hope to find one as you move forward?
STEPHENS: “Absolutely. I’ve got to find something that fits my qualities. I’ve got to talk to the coaches, see what they’re looking for — you know, the whole nine yards — and just kind of go from there. I’ve just got to make sure I find a place where everything fits, but I really think it will work out.”
Q: You’ve always seemed to have an optimistic outlook on football since you’ve been here — at least when you’ve talked with me. Why is that? You never played much at UT, despite coming in as a fairly heralded prospect.
STEPHENS: “One thing I’ve always told you is that if you start dwelling on something bad, it’s just going to eat you alive, and it’s going to make you a miserable person. Football hasn’t been ideal the past couple of years, but I wouldn’t change anything in my past. I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s made me such a better person and a stronger person.
“Going through all these trials and tribulations, it’s just been a big part of my life, and I wouldn’t take it back for anything.”
Q: So you’re saying your lasting memories of UT will be positive?
STEPHENS: “Absolutely. You have to do that, or it’s just going to make you miserable. Looking back on my time here, you take out football, and I’ve had a great time. Football hasn’t been very fun — and I’m just being honest here, I think I can talk for a lot of guys here when I say that. But they’ve got good times ahead of them, and so do I, hopefully.”
Q: Why has it not been fun? I’m guessing three coaching changes in three years has a lot to do with that.
STEPHENS: “I would have to say so. It’s hard having that many changes over that short a period of time, with all the different personalities that come in here, and all the different needs and wants of all these different coaches have. It’s almost destined that you’re just not going to fit in somebody’s plans.
“That’s something I accepted, and that’s what also led me to this decision.”
Q: How important is for the health of the UT program for Dooley and his staff to stick around for at least a few years?
STEPHENS: “It’s very important — and I don’t think just here, but for any program. Consistency is something I think that builds great programs. You don’t see many programs that have coaching changes all the time that are doing well. I think we’re going to be the exception to that here. There’s plenty of talent, and that young O-line, they’re going to be fine.
“I feel like this coaching staff is going to be here, and I feel like they’re going to do great things.”
Q: Anything else you’d like to add before hitting the road?
STEPHENS: “I’d like to say thank you to the fans who have stuck with me and this team these last couple of years. It’s been phenomenal. I know they haven’t gotten what they wanted from us on the field, and I apologize for that, but I couldn’t have asked for any more first-class people than there are in Tennessee.”
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