By Jimmy Hyams
Tennessee inserted its backup quarterback on the third series against Chattanooga – and that was a good thing.
After quarterback Jarrett Guarantano struggled in the first two outings this season, many fans called for the redshirt junior to be benched.
But a fast start by the Vols and Guarantano — UT led 21-0 when Brian Maurer went in – allowed the coaching staff to play a true freshman in the first quarter as the Vols rolled to a 45-0 victory at Neyland Stadium before a turnstile count of about 55,000 to 60,000 fans.
Guarantano, who was shaky in his first two starts this season and the last two games of last season, rebounded by going seven of eight for 142 yards and three touchdowns against the outmanned Mocs. Guarantano’s three scoring passes were a career single-game high.
“I felt pretty good out there,’’ said Guarantano, who didn’t play in the second half as UT bolted to a 38-0 halftime lead. “This week I wanted to harp on details for myself.’’
Guarantano said the first two opponents dropped eight into coverage and he was “greedy trying to push the ball downfield. I need to work on completions.’’
Guarantano was asked if his confidence ever wavered after UT’s 0-2 start?
“No, I wasn’t raised that way,’’ he said. “Yes, there were definitely some trying times and tough times but I learned more about myself in these past two weeks during these trying times than I ever had. I don’t think I ever went through something like that.
“I’m happy to get over the hump and start to feel like myself again.’’
What exactly did Guarantano learn?
“A lot, really,’’ he said, pausing and perhaps fighting back emotion. “It was tough going through these last two weeks … I’ve never really felt like that out there. I need to get back to myself again and I’m feeling like myself again.
“Going into this next week (at Florida) I got a little confidence back.’’
Interesting that Guarantano said he didn’t lose confidence, but got his confidence back.
It’s important Guarantano feels good about himself; if not, UT wouldn’t have much of a chance at The Swamp. As it is, the Vols likely will be a double digit underdog for the noon kickoff on Saturday.
Guarantano said he felt lucky to have support from his family, girlfriend, teammates and coaches.
“It can get rough out there sometimes,’’ he said, “but I’m happy I have the support system that I do. My coaches and teammates always have my back and I‘m definitely grateful for that.’’
Pruitt said it’s nice to not look over his shoulder and worry about getting benched.
He said Pruitt is “always encouraging me but he’s also getting on me about certain things. I really appreciate coach Pruitt for that and I think he’s done a really good job with me and I continue to ask him to keep being hard on me because I think it’s going to make me a better player.’’
For some reason, Pruitt felt the need to take a shot at the media when asked about Guarantano.
“You guys probably give yourselves more credit probably than you deserve,’’ Pruitt said. “The rest of us, we ain’t really worried about what you say when it comes to our quarterback and all that, alright.
“We just went about our business as usual. Jarrett is our quarterback and he’ll be our quarterback until we decide that he’s not. He deserves to be our quarterback. He’s outplayed everybody.’’
Interestingly, in the circles I travel, I don’t know any media that called for Gaurantano to be benched, but I did hear it from the many fans.
Pruitt also said Maurer isn’t necessarily the No. 2 quarterback. He said UT had some run plays that fit Maurer better than J.T. Shrout, so Maurer played first. In an earlier game, UT would have played Shrout ahead of Maurer, Pruitt said.
Guarantano wasn’t the only story. Senior receiver Tyler Byrd, a four-star recruit as a receiver who has only 19 career catches, blocked UTC’s first punt and got a hand on the second one.
“I lined up on the left side,’’ Byrd said. “I was waiting for the shield to move and when it moved, I just said, `I got this one,’ and I laid out for it and hoped for the best.’’
Byrd said it was “gratifying’’ to get the block, especially with a fellow senior, Brandon Johnson, scooping up the ball and scoring.
Byrd said he takes his roles on special teams seriously: “I want to make a difference somehow.’’
The other story was linebacker Jeremy Banks making two interceptions. The first one, he returned six yards but was tackled by a running back. Banks wants to be a running back but agreed to play linebacker with Daniel Bituli sidelined by injury.
Pruitt couldn’t resist needling his want-to-be running back: “I told him most good running backs make the first guy miss.’’
It’s easier to pick on players when you get a blowout win.
The ante goes up this Saturday when UT plays Florida at noon. But at least they can take some momentum to Gainesville. And the taste of an 0-2 start isn’t so sour.