KNOXVILLE, Tenn. | Three starts into his career, quarterback Nick Stephens is managing the Tennessee Vols well and has thrown no interceptions.
Coach Phillip Fulmer wants to see more, beginning Saturday night against No. 2 Alabama (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) .
"I've been pleased with Nick as a first-time starter. I think he's had enough games now under his belt, his game management has been good, but there's another step, another level," Fulmer said.
For that next step, look no further than Stephens' passing numbers.
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The sophomore took over against Northern Illinois after junior Jonathan Crompton had struggled with mistakes and controlling the offense through Tennessee's first four games.
In some cases, Stephens' numbers are worse than Crompton's. Stephens has completed 49.3 percent of his passes for an average 135.5 yards per game compared to Crompton's 52 percent for an average 164.5 yards.
By comparison, Erik Ainge completed 62.6 percent of his passes for an average 251.6 yards last season as a four-year veteran playing with a hurt pinky and shoulder. He completed 67 percent of his passes for an average 229.9 yards in 2006.
With three touchdowns and no interceptions, Stephens has thrown one more touchdown and four fewer interceptions than Crompton in one fewer start.
Stephens is the first to acknowledge that the first interception is bound to happen sooner rather than later, but he's not worried about how it will affect his play.
"One thing I do pride myself on is if I do make a mistake I can put that behind me and go out and keep playing. I don't let it affect me mentally," he said.
That's because Stephens has a lot of moxie, offensive coordinator Dave Clawson likes to say. He's calm when the things aren't going his way, and when there's no one to throw to, he either throws the ball away or tries to make a play with his own feet.
Clawson said Stephens is actually better at managing a game than he is managing play during practice, which is opposite of what coaches said of Crompton earlier in the season.
"There's throws that (Stephens) makes in practice where you shake your head and say, 'What were you thinking?' He's managed games well so far and has got to continue to do that," Clawson said, knocking on the table in front of him.
Stephens said he tries out a few things in practice to see if they might work in a game and does whatever he can to learn from his mistakes on the practice field to prevent making them in a game.
That trial and error has helped him develop the long-ball threat that Crompton didn't have. Seventeen of his 33 completions have been for more than 10 yards, including completions of 43, 45, 52 and 60 yards.
Against an Alabama defense which ranks fourth nationally in stopping the run, the ability to use the long pass to shorten the field will be crucial for Tennessee (3-4, 1-3 SEC).
"It's really difficult against anybody to take the ball eight and 10 and 12 and 14 plays and drive the ball for scores. It's particularly difficult against a team like Alabama that gives you so many problems and is so physically talented," Fulmer said.
"We'll be looking for that play somewhere along the way, and we've been able to make that since Nick has been our quarterback," he said.