KNOXVILLE -- Nick Stephens has spent the past two months watching the University of Tennessee coaching staff resurrect one senior quarterback's disappointing career. The junior has spent the past two days auditioning for a similar opportunity next season.
With Jonathan Crompton nursing minor hand and shoulder injuries over the weekend, Stephens took a bulk of the first- and second-team repetitions and drew praise from head coach Lane Kiffin.
"I think it's a very good example of when someone has to play, they play better, usually," Kiffin said Sunday afternoon. "He's done really well. He's playing the best he's played since we've been here."
There are reasons for that, Stephens said moments later. The strong-armed, red-headed Texan said his decision to choose perseverance over pouting resulted in a second-string season dedicated to improvement.
Stephens -- who started several games as a sophomore, with mixed results -- rushed back for preseason camp after fracturing his throwing wrist, but he couldn't shake off the rust quickly enough to legitimately compete with Crompton for the starting spot. Kiffin and his assistants haven't publicly complained about the backup's attitude once, though.
"It was a little rough at the beginning and for most of the season, but it's one of those things where you just have to come to grips with what's going on and decide what road you're going to take," Stephens said. "You can either start feeling sorry for yourself or put your head down and still try to get better in the areas that you need to, and I think I've done that.
"Even if you're not starting, you're still getting a lot of good reps with the receivers in routes versus air and seven-on-sevens and stuff, so I've just been taking advantage of that and making myself better."
Stephens kept himself sharp enough to capably lead the starters the first two days, but he kept taking snaps with many of the backups who will compete for starting spots this spring -- "the best of both worlds," as he called it.
"Those (backups) are the guys that are more than likely going to be competing for the O-line jobs next year," Stephens said. "It's been a good opportunity to start gaining some chemistry with the guys that are going to be back next year, and also a time to gain chemistry with the guys that are starting now, in case I do need to step in.
"It's been a lot of work, but it's been a great opportunity, and I think I've taken advantage of it so far."
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and quarterbacks coach David Reaves have tweaked several of Stephens' fundamental mechanics, and the player said hours spent on footwork have improved his accuracy -- an area in which Crompton was consistently better for most of camp.
"Footwork has always been something that I could get better at," Stephens said. "It's a lot of little things, like getting your feet in the right position to make the throw, and getting your shoulder pointed at the receiver to make the throw, and just little, fundamental things that you can do to improve yourself.
"All that goes along with accuracy, because it does make you more accurate."
Supporting cast is a huge factor, too, though -- look at Crompton's results with and without healthy receivers Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore. As Kiffin expected, Stephens has looked sharper with the starters.
"He's been in there with the tight end (Luke Stocker) that's been playing extremely well, as well as the tailbacks and receivers," Kiffin said. "When you go in there with those guys, it helps, especially as well as they've been playing."
Stephens doesn't expect to be handed the starting position in spring practice. And that's good for him, because Kiffin has no intentions of handing it to him. Highly touted, 6-foot-7 California high school star Tyler Bray moved to Knoxville last week and started practicing with the team, and junior college transfer Matt Simms is expected on campus in the coming days.
"I've talked to the guys about how this is the time to continue to show us what they have, because hopefully we'll have a lot of mid-term (additions) by the time spring practice comes," Kiffin said. "There will be a lot of guys trying to take their spots."
There are plenty of reasons for Stephens to like his chances of winning the job, though. He's spent an entire season learning the offense, and he has handfuls of locker room supporters.
Stephens also gained confidence watching his coaches transform Crompton this season.
"The coaches have played to (Crompton's) strengths, and his strengths have gotten a lot better this year," Stephens said. "He's gotten so much better in many different areas, and seeing the coaches sticking with a specific part of your game and expanding the playbook to that, it's a big deal. That just shows that they have confidence in you, and you have confidence in them.
"I just think, overall, it's a good deal that we've got going on here."
Stephens laughingly dismissed any notion that he'd consider a last-season transfer to a smaller school and ensure himself a starting position.
"If I wasn't excited about the future here after seeing what's happened this year, there would be something wrong with me," Stephens said. "Seeing how we've started clicking, and guys were open, and we were putting points on the board, you've got to love that, from the standpoint of how our coach calls the plays. I love the way all of our coaches coach, from games all the way down to practice.
"There's so many things to be excited about going into next year. But as a team, we've obviously got to worry about right now first."
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