Photo by Jake Nichols/RTI
Jarrett Guarantano’s redshirt junior season got off to a rocky start. And it only got worse.
Hopes were high that the Tennessee’s starting quarterback would thrive under new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney in 2019, but that didn’t appear to be the case to begin the season. The fourth-year junior played inconsistently in Tennessee’s 38-30 loss to Georgia State to start the season, and his play worsened against BYU, a game the Vols lost 29-26 in double-overtime. After a better performance against FCS foe UT-Chattanooga, Guarantano found himself on the bench to start the second half a week later when the Vols played Florida.
Through four weeks, Guarantano had thrown four touchdowns and four interceptions in three games against FBS opponents.
Coming out of UT’s bye week, Guarantano lost his starting job to freshman Brian Maurer. A week later, the redshirt junior had to come off the bench in relief of Maurer when Tennessee hosted Mississippi State. Guarantano wasn’t asked to do much except helped protect the Vols’ lead, and he did that perfectly, completing six of his seven passes for 106 yards and the game-sealing touchdown to Tyler Byrd in the fourth quarter.
Next week, though, was a disaster.
Guarantano struggled to complete passes against then-No. 1 Alabama on the road the following week, but his night will forever be remembered for his fumble at the goal line on fourth down that resulted in a 100-yard recovery and return for a touchdown by the Tide, turning a potential one-score game to a 35-13 defeat. What’s worse is that it appeared Guarantano changed the play and went hurry-up with the offense, leading many to say he went “rogue” at the goal line.
After that, many fans never wanted to see Guarantano on the field again. But he’s taken snaps at quarterback in every game since, and he’s been a completely different player.
The Vols have won three-straight games, and Guarantano has played a large role in all three wins. And that’s led the fourth-year junior to be labeled as one of the top “comeback stories” in college football this season.
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Pat Forde of Sports Illustrated has drawn the ire of Vol fans for some of his opinions regarding both Tennessee’s football and men’s basketball programs. But this week, he has nothing but positive things to say about one of the most talked-about players on UT’s roster this season.
Forde listed off 10 of the best “comeback stories” in college football so far this season, and Guarantano was included among the feel-good entries.
That fumble against Alabama? Forde calls that the low point of the season for Guarantano.
“That led to a sideline ripping and facemask tugging from coach Jeremy Pruitt, not to mention being pilloried by Tennessee fans,” Forde wrote. “After being benched earlier in the season, many of them didn’t want to see him again.”
After that low moment, Guarantano apologized to the entire team behind closed doors and took responsibility for his actions. Since then, he’s been efficient and effective.
In the three games after that Alabama debacle, Guarantano has come off the bench and played the majority of the snaps at quarterback in each game for Tennessee. Guarantano filled in for redshirt freshman JT Shrout after the first couple series against South Carolina up until he was knocked out of the game with injury, played in all but a few series against UAB, and started the second half against Kentucky in the Vols’ 17-13 win on the road.
In those three games, Guarantano has completed 64.6 percent of his passes for 491 yards, five touchdowns, and just one interception. He’s also run for 35 yards on 12 carries and is averaging 10.2 yards per pass attempt.
So what’s changed for Guarantano? “A lot” according to Forde.
“Guarantano paid a price for his insubordination, but he’s kept his head in the game and been ready when Tennessee needed him,” Forde wrote. “The junior’s roller-coaster career is trending back up right now.”
Forde goes on to say that Guarantano “probably gives (Pruitt) his best chance” to win the final two games of the regular season against Missouri and Vanderbilt. Tennessee has stayed mum on who will be starting at quarterback this weekend against the Tigers, but Pruitt mentioned last week that Guarantano has thrived in his support role and could continue to come off the bench and play significant snaps that way.
“I do think he’s probably more suited to come off the bench maybe than the other guys,” Pruitt said of Guarantano. “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. It’s something we felt gave us the best opportunity to win and have success, so that’s why we’ve done it. I think he can play just as well starting the game.”
Whatever happens at QB on Saturday, Guarantano will likely have a large role in the outcome of the game.
On the season, Guarantano has completed 105 of his 169 passes (62.9 percent) for 1,402 yards, 13 touchdowns, and five interceptions.