By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
What a difference a couple of weeks make.
In Tennessee’s season opener against South Carolina, Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano played a turnover-free football game in a Tennessee win, but faced some all-too-familiar criticism for missing on several throws. Accuracy issues have been a theme throughout his career, but those get old quickly, especially for a fifth-year senior at the sport’s most important position.
A week later against Missouri it appeared Guarantano had settled into better form. He played a clean game and Tennessee’s offense was all business as the Vols cruised to a win over the Tigers. Things unraveled against Georgia the following weekend. After a pair of touchdown passes in the first half, Guarantano committed three second-half turnovers as a slim lead quickly turned into a 23-point loss.
I wrote last week that the loss to the Bulldogs wasn’t entirely on Guarantano. No quarterback on Tennessee’s roster would’ve won the game for the Vols with the lack of protection Tennessee’s offense was giving Guarantano. -1 total rushing yards didn’t help. I stand by those comments. Even if Guarantano manages to avoid those turnovers, Tennessee still isn’t scoring. It simply couldn’t move the ball.
This Saturday, however, was a very different story.
Guarantano was benched (twice) after his second consecutive game with three turnovers in a single half. He took a sack on third down at the Kentucky 31 on Tennessee’s opening drive that knocked the Vols out of field goal range, then lost a fumble at the Kentucky 26 after miscommunication with his running back on UT’s second drive.
On Tennessee’s third drive Guarantano telegraphed a throw to the wide boundary and Kelvin Joseph stepped in front it, picked it off and raced 41 yards for the first score of the game. In the ensuing possession Guarantano drove the offense inside the Wildcats’ 30 before staring down Kentucky’s Jamin Davis sitting in a zone and throwing the ball right to him.
Davis, with an entourage of blockers, hustled down the right sideline for an 85-yard touchdown off the interception return.
Guarantano was then benched in favor of J.T. Shrout, who threw an interception on his first pass attempt. Kentucky turned the takeaway into a field goal and Guarantano returned to the field. Freshman Harrison Bailey took over for Tennessee after Kentucky scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter to take a 34-7 lead.
The Vols managed one first down and just 16 total yards on Guarantano’s final four drives.
There were other issues away from the quarterback position. The offensive line had its hiccups and the defense gave up a 76-yard drive early in the second half with the Vols still down by just ten. Take away the four turnovers and Kentucky still wins by double digits.
But if you take away Kentucky’s offensive production the Wildcats still win. The biggest takeaway from Saturday is the harsh reality that Tennessee is having the same conversations about its quarterback position as it was a year ago.
And that’s unsettling.
After the loss, Jeremy Pruitt said the quarterback position is undecided. “When you lose 34-7, everybody within our organization, you’ve got to look and see what went wrong. We could make changes at any level.”
That comes five days after reiterating that Guarantano was Tennessee’s best option on the roster. “Jarrett’s our quarterback. He gives us the best opportunity to have success.” Pruitt attributed much of Guarantano’s struggles against Georgia to the lack of pass protection.
But both of Guarantano’s interceptions came on plays where he was given a clean pocket and had time to throw. He made poor decision and worse execution on the first one. He stared down a defender on the second one and thought he could make a play. Davis proved him wrong.
On his 14 completions, Guarantano totaled 88 yards and the drive he only completed one pass for four yards on Tennessee’s 14-play scoring drive. On his two interceptions, Guarantano totaled 126 yards and two scores for the other team.
Last summer a colleague of mine told me Tennessee should be thankful Guarantano was returning to play for Tennessee in 2019 as a redshirt junior because “had he declared for the NFL Draft, he would’ve been off the board by day three.”
I clarified to him that day three of the draft is rounds 4-7, meaning a day two selection or better has a player being selected before the end of the third round. He stood by his statement.
I’m against straight up bashing a college athlete. Guarantano could’ve left after everything that went wrong in 2019 and elected to stay and was a big part of Tennessee success in the second half of last season. But the lows outweigh the highs when it comes to his career. His tenure at Tennessee now features:
- Two losses to Kentucky, including the first loss at Neyland Stadium in 36 years.
- Two blowout losses to Vanderbilt, including one in 2018 with a bowl berth on the line.
- A loss to Georgia State in which he committed two turnovers.
- One of the most embarrassing plays in recent memory with his goal line fumble against Alabama.
- A 12-17 overall record as a starter. 6-14 in the SEC.
Guarantano hasn’t been dealt the best hand compared to past Tennessee quarterbacks. He’s had four offensive coordinators in five years. His first year as a starter featured the worst team in school history. At some point, if it hasn’t happened already, the coaching staff needs to share some of the blame. Why hasn’t Guarantano developed into a better passer? And if Guarantano continues to struggle, why hasn’t another quarterback progressed enough to take over the starting job?
There’s still time for Shrout, Bailey and Brian Maurer to progress, but unless Guarantano opts to return for a sixth year in Knoxville, someone else is going to have to take the reigns of the offense next season. The bigger question is if one of them can do so and have success.
That’s an eerily similar question to the one Tennessee was facing entering the 2017 season. With Josh Dobbs having graduated, Tennessee was dealing with a quarterback battle between Guarantano and Quinten Dormady. Both four-star recruits signed in consecutive classes. Dormady started the season for Tennessee, but subpar play and injuries gave the job to Guarantano.
Dormady transferred to Houston, then again to Central Michigan where he led the Chippewas to the MAC title game. Looking back on it, Dormady’s college football path serves as an indication of what was to come.
Who knows if we’ll see Guarantano start again this season. My gut says he will, but that’s more out of seeing a lack of proven consistency from the other three quarterbacks behind him.
Maybe Guarantano will turn it around and repeat what he did last season to lead Tennessee to some key wins late in the year. Maybe Shrout, Maurer or Bailey will take over and Guarantano will stand on the sideline and scream his lungs out for whichever quarterback takes his place. Because that’s the type of teammate he is. Maybe Guarantano will keep the starting job and continue to struggle.
If it’s either the second or third outcome, it’ll kill Guarantano on the inside. Because regardless of how you feel about him, he loves Tennessee.
I’ll assert that Guarantano’s talent is also hampered by his limitations. He’s been an overall disappointment given his four-star quarterback rating. He’s an average college quarterback at best and a below-average SEC one. But he’s a student-athlete and nobody can deny he’s wanted things to go better up to this point, and he undoubtedly still believes he can turn it around over Tennessee’s final six games.
If you want to see Maurer or Shrout, then fine. If you’re convinced the season can’t get much better than five wins and just want to see Bailey go out there and try to develop, then all right. But let this serve as a simple disclaimer that certain behaviors to an amateur athlete just aren’t necessary.
I’m all for benching the kid at this point. Just don’t boo him.