KNOXVILLE -- Nick Stephens often gives himself helpful reminders.
Be positive. Support your teammates. Stay ready. Chances will come.
It's still not easy for Tennessee's backup quarterback to stand idly on the sideline while the Volunteers continue to struggle with the downfield passing game.
"I'm just trying to be as positive as I can be right now with everything," Stephens said after Monday's practice. "These coaches have a plan, and they're doing what they feel is best for the team.
"Personally, I'm just working as hard as I can and trying to get better."
First-year UT head coach Lane Kiffin said shortly after arriving in December that he would open the quarterback race until picking a starter before the season. From that point, Kiffin said he would not make any changes under center unless it was absolutely necessary.
Despite senior starter Jonathan Crompton's 160 passing yards per game and eight interceptions in five games, Kiffin hasn't deemed a switch necessary.
"No. Not at all," Kiffin said Monday night.
Kiffin was more openly critical of Crompton than he had been, but the coach's preferred passing-game patch remains focusing on the starter.
"I don't feel any better than I did a week ago, which is unfortunate," Kiffin said. "We've got to continue to work on it, and we've got to continue to improve. We've got to figure out who our receivers are. A guy will make a play, and then he won't make a play. He'll line up right, and then he won't line up right.
"It makes it hard on your quarterback to be consistent if we're not consistent outside."
Kiffin added that it was "fair" to suggest that Crompton's "three to five" errors per game consistently come on "critical" plays.
"They tend not to be ... something that really doesn't have a major effect," Kiffin said. "They tend to be third-down or two-minute plays, very crucial times, or bad decisions taking sacks.
"We've got to make better decisions in critical times, because that's what great quarterbacks do."
Said Stephens: "I'm just trying to think about what I can do to improve myself as a football player, and not worry about everything else that's going on around me right now. Of course, it's not going to be easy, but you've just got to rise above that.
"You just try to handle everything positive and help the team, even if you're not in the game. That's what I've been doing, and I'm going to continue to do that, and if I get a chance, I'm going to go out there and do the best I can."
Asked how he would do if given another chance to start, Stephens laughingly replied, "I don't know. We'll have to find out."
Asked when everyone would find out, Stephens laughingly replied, "I don't now. You're asking the wrong guy."
The right guy to ask, Kiffin, said he didn't foresee Stephens getting more opportunities in practice this week.
"If we had a veteran quarterback who had played a lot for us, and our receivers had played a lot and were playing really well, you can give your backup quarterback more reps," Kiffin said. "As we continue to develop the cohesiveness of our pass game, and our receiver play, we can't afford to give a bunch of reps to the backup.
"But Nick's done good in the opportunities that he's had."
Junior wide receiver Gerald Jones said he apologized to the team for a Saturday night sideline outburst that was "completely out of line and unacceptable." Jones, the team's primary receiver last season, said continual injuries and poor passing-game performances have left him "more frustrated than I've ever been in my life, but that's no excuse for what I did."
Kiffin said senior guard Jacques McClendon, a former Baylor School star, played his best game of the season Saturday despite battling illness and nearly being left out of the lineup. ... Junior defensive end Chris Walker remains questionable for the Auburn game with a sore lower back, though sources said a weekend MRI showed no major damage to an area where Walker's been sore.
Kiffin said senior Quintin Hancock, the team's leading receiver, would probably miss a second consecutive game Saturday while recovering from a jaw injury. Hancock will visit doctors this afternoon.
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