KNOXVILLE -- Four years ago, hotshot Texas high school quarterback Nick Stephens decommitted from Ole Miss and signed with Tennessee because he loved the people associated with the Volunteers program.
That's why Stephens doesn't regret sticking around four years despite a playing career that was little more than continual frustration.
"Looking back on my time here, you take out football and I've had a great time," he said Friday morning, one day following his decision to leave the Volunteers before his final season of eligibility. "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 I still 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."
Stephens started spring practice with no guarantees to win the starting position, but he took a vast majority of the first-team snaps through seven practices and the Vols' first major scrimmage. But after a disappointing performance in that scrimmage, first-year head coach Derek Dooley sat down with Stephens and told him the staff planned to change the rotation. Junior college transfer Matt Simms and January enrollee took most of the significant snaps Tuesday and Wednesday, and Stephens said he quickly saw the proverbial writing on the wall.
"I sat down with Coach Dooley on Monday, and he told me the reps were going to be changed up," said Stephens, who would've been a fifth-year senior. "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."
But it wasn't -- and still isn't -- easy, he said several times.
Stephens said he looked at his apartment clock "every 10 minutes" while his former teammates were practicing Thursday. And that was the easy part. The tougher part came after practice, when a "ton" of them kept sending him supportive text messages.
"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," Stephens said. "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."
Dooley tried convincing Stephens to stay at least through next Saturday's Orange and White game, but the quarterback was set on moving on immediately.
"He didn't want to run the risk of not playing his senior year," Dooley said Thursday night. "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."
Stephens said he "appreciated" Dooley's honest approach, though the two obviously disagreed on the player's role with the current team.
"I think he kind of understood where I was coming from," Stephens said. "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."
Simms and Bray will continue to battle for the top spot, with junior Nick Lamaison running the third team. Former Calhoun (Ga.) High School star Nash Nance will enroll this summer and join the mix.
Stephens, meanwhile, has approached several NCAA Division II programs -- the highest level he's eligible to play at this season -- and hopes to enroll somewhere as an starter.
The Lone Star Conference was a safe starting point for the Texan's transfer talks.
"I've got to find something that fits my qualities," Stephens said. "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."
"I'm excited. I really am ... but 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."
Stephens agreed to speak Friday because he wanted an avenue to thank those associated with the Vols -- including the fans -- for what he called "four years of great memories off the field."
As for on the field, Stephens said he expected Dooley to stay in Knoxville for "a long time" and stop the carousel of coaches in and out of UT the past three years.
"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," Stephens said. "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.
"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.
"The guys here have got good times ahead of them, and so do I, hopefully."
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