The look of confidence on Nick Stevens’ face is unmistakable.
It is born of experience, and the knowledge that he has faced the biggest test of his life – and emerged better in pretty much every way.
“I’m a much better quarterback than I was a year ago,” said Stevens as he discussed what lies ahead in his senior season at Colorado State. “I can’t wait for next season to get here.”
Who could blame him?
Stevens put together a memorable junior campaign that included a late run that earned the Rams a fourth consecutive postseason bowl invitation. The Rams had to win four of their final five regular-season games to get there, and Stevens played a huge role in that run.
“Our success, largely on offense, had a lot to do with Nick’s play,” CSU coach Mike Bobo said. “There’s a big difference between last year and this year in the way he played the quarterback position. At the end of (the 2015 season) we kind of took the ball out of Nick’s hands, but this year he was the playmaker.”
Coach’s vote of confidence
Bobo has stressed the need for competition at every position since arriving from Georgia two seasons ago. Starting positions are earned, he believes, by outperforming your teammates – both in practice and in games.
As a result, Stevens didn’t know he was the starting quarterback going into either of the past seasons until a few days prior to the opening game.
But shortly after the conclusion of the 2016 season, Bobo made a rather unexpected announcement. Stevens, who put up huge passing numbers in a loss to Idaho in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, had earned the right to be called the starter going into the 2017 campaign.
“I told Nick after the bowl game that I was proud of him,” Bobo said. “I don’t think he’d have had the season he had if he didn’t have to deal with some adversity. I expect Nick to be the starter next year, and I hope that gives him some confidence during the offseason.”
Finding his way
The adversity Bobo referred to came early in the 2016 season. Stevens had a rough performance in a season-opening loss to Colorado and was benched – first in favor of senior Faton Bauta, then as Bobo gave true freshman Collin Hill a chance to lead the team.
Stevens was devastated.
“I had never been benched before,” he said. “My stomach dropped – honestly, I didn’t know how to react. But it was a decision moment for me: I could either sulk and feel sorry for myself or keep working and remain the team player I was raised to be.”
Stevens chose the second option and continued to work hard, knowing that he had to be ready if he was given a second chance. He did his best to remain positive, and he supported Hill’s efforts to lead the team.
“He handled it with total class,” said Jake Bennett, the Rams’ starting center. “Nothing changed about his demeanor – he was the same guy, still a leader. And when his number got called again it was like he never left.”
A second chance to shine
Stevens got a chance for a reboot in the sixth game of the season when Hill, who had often shown signs of brilliance despite his lack of experience, suffered a season-ending torn ACL Oct. 8 against Utah State. Stevens came off the bench and rallied the Rams to a much-needed 31-24 victory.
As Stevens rediscovered his groove, the Rams got hot, winning four of their final five games while averaging 47.4 points per game. They hit their peak in the regular-season finale at eventual Mountain West champion San Diego State, rolling to a 63-31 win against one of the nation’s top defenses. Stevens threw four touchdown passes in the first half alone.
“That San Diego State game was kind of surreal,” Bennett said. “We were firing on all cylinders in all phases of the game. It was so much fun – and it showed what we are capable of going into next season.”
Excitement building for 2017
Even though the season ended with a loss, the Rams are looking forward to 2017 with high hopes. The Rams not only open the new on-campus stadium in September, they return 15 starters and plenty of other experienced players.
It would be tough, however, to find someone more excited than Stevens, who graduates in May with a degree in finance – and a 3.3 grade point average. Not only is he filled with confidence after playing at a very high level in the final seven games of the season, the unexpected vote of confidence from Bobo let him know that the Rams are HIS team going into 2017.
“We have the new stadium, which is going to be awesome, we have an incredibly explosive offense and we have a young defense that will be better,” he said. “We also have a tough schedule that could help us put together a really special year. Mostly, we have the coach and the guys in the locker room to make it all happen. I can’t wait to get started.”