By Jim Wyatt | The Tennessean
Nick Stephens experienced all the hoopla that goes with playing quarterback for a major college program when he was at the University of Tennessee.
To reach his goal of making it to the NFL, however, he had to step back, out of the spotlight.
The long and difficult road led him to the Titans, who added him as an undrafted free agent. But UT's former starting quarterback, who finished his career at Division II Tarleton State, knows the hardest part will be staying on the roster.
"Everything I've gone through, it's all worked out so far, so I feel pretty blessed," Stephens said on Sunday. "But I'd be lying to you if I said doubt doesn't creep in when so many things ... come up that you are not expecting.
"I just always told myself it is all happening for a reason and you just have to keep believing and keep working hard. If you start worrying about what the final outcome is going to be, you'll drive yourself nuts."
Stephens arrived at Tennessee in 2006 and started six games in 2008. But in 2009 -- Lane Kiffin's lone season as head coach -- he backed up Jonathan Crompton. Heading into his final year of eligibility, Stephens decided to leave Knoxville so he'd have a chance to play as a senior.
A UT career that began with his throwing 106 consecutive passes without an interception ended with his passing for 982 yards and five touchdowns.
When Stephens transferred to Tarleton -- where he didn't have to sit out a year -- in many ways he had to start over. With a lot fewer people paying attention.
At UT he'd played in front of 100,000 at Neyland Stadium. He had success between the hedges at Georgia. He played against Alabama.
At Tarleton those moments quickly became distant memories, yet he stayed determined, even after suffering a separated shoulder in his first game and missing the first half of the season.
He caught a break when he discovered an NCAA "10-semester rule" that allowed him to play in 2011 as well. Stephens passed for 3,005 yards and 20 touchdowns last year.
"Our place holds about 7,000, but we played before 20,000 at Texas State last year," he said. "Yes, it was different. And it humbles you and you start to really respect and appreciate where you came from. I was at Tennessee, a big-time program, the Adidas contract, all the stuff you get. The exposure, the hype -- you don't get that at a DII school, so it is humbling. But you know what? It allowed me to learn some things about myself.
"And to have to go through everything I went through -- from the coaching changes to the transfer to the injury -- I think there is a positive I can take from it. I believe everything happens for a reason and I think that is probably why I ended back in Tennessee."
The 6-foot-3 Stephens knows he will have to fight hard to stay with the Titans, who have Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker preparing to battle for the starting job. Rusty Smith, a sixth-round pick in 2010 who has made progress each year, is also on the roster.
And just getting noticed by NFL teams was an exhausting process for Stephens.
Because of his lack of exposure at Tarleton -- located about 45 minutes west of Fort Worth, Texas -- Stephens went all over the country to put himself in front of scouts.
He took part in pro days at three schools -- Tarleton, North Texas and Abilene Christian -- and participated in a regional combine in Tampa, Fla., and a super-regional combine in Detroit. He played in the NFL Players Association game in Los Angeles. Titans scout Jon Salge eventually spotted him.
For the past two months, Stephens has also been training in Tampa with former NFL quarterback Steve DeBerg, who gave him tips on how to improve his footwork and release.
Stephens, who also received interest from the Cowboys after the draft, hopes to prove to the Titans he's worth keeping around. The rookies report to Baptist Sports Park on May 10.
"When I get there I am just going to try and learn the offense as quickly as possible and I am going to learn from Matt and Jake and Rusty," Stephens said. "I respect all those guys -- you have to respect them. What I have gone through for the past five years, it is a testament to who those guys are, and the paths they took to get there. You have to be willing to work, and that is what I am going to do."
While Stephens might be regarded a long shot to make the team, he said he would be motivated by thinking about the people who considered his NFL chance extinguished when he left Tennessee.
And he'll remember getting through adversity at tiny Tarleton.
"The way that it ended up, it is kind of crazy," Stephens said.
"Just being back in the state and seeing all the orange again, it is going to be pretty cool. I love the state of Tennessee. The people were unbelievable to me when I was there. I believe everything happens for a reason and I think that is probably why I ended back in Tennessee."