By Jimmy Hyams
If college football gave an award for the Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year, Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano would be a sure winner.
It’s not often that a quarterback comes off the bench to win a game.
It’s even more unusual when he’s helped you win four.
After being benched at Florida, Guarantano has assisted the Vols beating Mississippi State, South Carolina, UAB and Kentucky.
And in the second half of his last five games, Guarantano has completed a blistering 76 percent of his passes (28 of 37) for 426 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions.
Guarantano said his teammates jokingly call him the sixth man – a term usually reserved for basketball.
Guarantano’s play has raised this question: Should he start or continue to be a sub?
Opinions are mixed.
He’s your best quarterback, so start him, some say.
He’s done well coming off the bench, so why mess with success, others say.
We asked Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney if he thinks Guarantano is better coming off the bench than starting.
“That’s interesting,’’ Chaney said. “People have asked me that and said that. I don’t know the answer. Whether he is or he isn’t, I don’t know. You’d have to ask him how he feels.’’
Does Chaney think Guarantano is better as a backup?
“I don’t see that,’’ Chaney said. “I see a kid that knows football very well and he’s learning what I want him to do and handling it better and better as the days go by.
“As far as coming off the bench, that sixth-man mentality that I continue to hear, I never think much about that.’’
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt has thought about it, but he’s not saying whether the junior will start at Missouri this Saturday (7:30 p.m., SEC Network).
We asked Pruitt if Guarantano is better coming off the bench.
“I do think he’s probably more suited to come off the bench maybe than the other guys,’’ Pruitt said. “There’s a lot of emotion and anxiety that goes into the preparation and getting ready for a game, and I think the fact that he has a little age on him and some maturity, he can handle coming off the bench. I think he can see and process and take some of the things that have happened previously in the game and take advantage of it.’’
Pruitt said he thought having Guarantano in relief “gave us the best opportunity to win and to have success,’’ but he also said, “I think he can play just as well starting the game.’’
When asked what Guarantano has to do to reclaim the starting spot, Pruitt said who starts is “not as important to me as who is playing effectively, efficiently.’’
Guarantano’s early struggles have been well documented. Chaney pointed out that Guarantano has had four offensive coordinators in four years at Tennessee.
“That can’t go unnoticed,’’ Chaney said. “It’s difficult. … Everyone one of us (offensive coordinators) is bringing our own language.’’
Chaney compared it to starting a new job or having to learn to speak French.
“You’re learning a new language, and he’s had to learn three or four of them,’’ Chaney said. “That affects the play of that position because you have to be in command of everything. It takes time to do it, so I don’t think you can discount that. That takes time.’’
And it appears Guarantano’s time has come.
He’s played well in recent games.
He’s learned the language.
And he’s helping Tennessee win.