Heading into the 2016 season, Nick Stevens never thought he would be in this position. The starter yes, but not like this, not coming off the bench.
But the bench is exactly where Stevens found himself after his week one performance against the University of Colorado. The junior was named the second team All-Mountain West quarterback a year ago, but all it took was the one game, where Stevens went 6-20 passing with two interceptions, for coach Mike Bobo to turn elsewhere at the quarterback position.
The position was set when freshman Collin Hill took over the job in week three against the University of Northern Colorado and did not look back.
Now, after Hill suffered a season ending knee injury in the win against Utah State, the Rams are back looking to Stevens to lead the offense.
“He is taking over the role like your first team quarterback should,” Bobo said of Stevens’ approach this week after Wednesday’s practice. “He’s been taking command of the huddle, he has been getting guys going.”
When he entered the game last Saturday after Hill’s injury in the third quarter, Stevens took his first significant snaps since that week one loss to CU.
He has served as the primary backup to Hill since week three, and he has been lauded for his approach to the game and his team after being demoted. Particularly after he came in and helped finish off the Aggies after Hill’s injury.
“I said it after the game, it’s one thing to say things, it’s one thing to live it,” Bobo said. “He has been living the right way in terms of his approach to being a member of this football team and to getting better. That’s why, I believe when he came into the game, guys had confidence in him because he had confidence in himself.”
That confidence and the progress come from the way Stevens handled the backup role. Bobo said that Stevens was the model teammate to Hill after the demotion, while Stevens maintains that he approached everyday like he was still the starting quarterback.
For many, it was just like he never left. Center Jake Bennett said that the team never viewed Stevens as the number two guy because of his experience as a starting quarterback. When he came in against Utah State on Saturday, the offense was simply looking back at the same quarterback who led the Rams to a bowl game last season.
And if anything, Stevens’ trip this season serves as the ultimate personal learning experience.
“Getting that first game out of the way definitely was big,” Stevens said. “I think I needed that. I needed to struggle a little bit and that allowed me to come back and work even harder.”
He did struggle, but then he had the chance to get out of the spotlight for a while, and his vantage point from the sideline even helped him in his preparation.
“(It was) a humbling experience,” Stevens said. “In a weird way it allowed me to sit back and take a different leadership role. I was able to still stay positive and make little corrections that I wouldn’t have seen on the field. Also, a little bit more of a mentoring role for Collin obviously when he was playing.”
Bobo and Stevens both said that they thought he had improved as a quarterback since week one, and that this offense is far better than it was in the CU game.
Queue up Colorado State’s showdown with the No.15 Boise State Broncos in Boise, Idaho on Saturday.
The Broncos are the class of the Mountain West right now, and the game stands as another aptitude for the CSU team this season to see just how far Stevens and the offense have come since week one.
But if there is any pressure, it is not getting to Stevens. In his first practices back at the helm, Bobo said that he saw a more comfortable Stevens, who felt at home back as the starter.
“Maybe not putting so much pressure on himself,” Bobo said. “(Just) going out there and practiced and relaxed. He’s a pretty confident guy.”
And Stevens himself said that this mid-season start certainly does not come with the kind of pressure like the Rocky Mountain Showdown did after he won the fall camp quarterback competition.
“(I’m) definitely less stressed and a little less pressure,” Stevens said. “I think it’s kind of allowed me to take a step back and be a little bit more calm and poised going into the game.”
Stevens has a second chance. It did not come to him the way he wanted it too, or the way he ever expected. But he has the chance, and he sounds like a guy who is more than ready to get back to leading the CSU offense.
How far that second chance will go remains to be seen.
Collegian sports reporter Eric Wolf can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @Eric_Wolf5