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Pruitt: Guarantano “Showed a Lot of Courage” on Saturday

(Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics)

Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt wasn’t pleased with the outcome of Saturday’s game against South Carolina. The Vols led 21-9 after their opening drive of the second half went for a touchdown, and Tennessee had the Gamecocks right where they wanted them.

But the Vols’ defense couldn’t stop South Carolina’s offense, and UT’s offense was only able to put up three more points after that opening touchdown drive of the second half, and UT fell 27-24 to the Gamecocks.

Some fans have wanted to put a lot of the blame for the Vols’ loss on quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. But his head coach thought the redshirt sophomore played well in the game.

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“I’ve said all along that Jarrett’s a tough guy,” Pruitt said on Monday. “He makes some really good throws in games and makes some really good decisions. I think we played 73 offensive snaps (against South Carolina), and probably 65 of those he played extremely well. There’s probably three throws he would’ve liked to have back, and there’s probably five decisions — whether it was a check with protection or maybe starting on the wrong side of the field — that he was wrong on.

“I thought he showed a lot of courage, played really hard, was a really good leader for our team. We just need to fix those other plays, and he can do that.”

Guarantano finished the game setting career-highs in completions and pass attempts while once again tying his career-high in passing touchdowns in a game. He completed 27 of his 39 pass attempts for 207 yards and two scores all while not turning the ball over. Saturday marked the third time this season Guarantano has thrown for at least two touchdowns in a game, and it was the seventh time in eight games he didn’t throw an interception.

Tennessee’s offensive game plan on Saturday involved a lot of quick throws and passes closer to the line of scrimmage rather than taking shots downfield. It worked effectively against South Carolina’s defense, and Saturday was only the fourth time all year a team had thrown for more than 200 yards against the Gamecocks and was the first time all season a team had tossed two touchdowns against them.

According to Pruitt, he and offensive coordinator Tyson Helton allow Guarantano to make a lot of decisions himself on the field, and they actually give the third-year player a lot of responsibility in the offense.

“We ask him to do a lot of things, which I think helps our offense and helps us get the right plays in the run game,” Pruitt added. “He can make checks from run to pass, he can change protection, but there’s a lot of demand on him, and he can handle it. There’s just a few things we gotta fix from this past week.”

Coming into the game, Guarantano’s health was a big concern after Tennessee’s match-up with Alabama. Guarantano left the Vols’ game against the Tide early after taking a huge hit in the second quarter. Backup quarterback Keller Chryst entered into the game and performed well, completing nine of his 15 passes for 164 yards an two touchdowns.

Before the game, Pruitt said there was a chance both quarterbacks could play against South Carolina, but Chryst never took the field against the Gamecocks.

“We repped both guys. They actually took the same amount of reps this week (at practice),” Pruitt explained. “We knew it was kinda going to be a game-time decision. One thing I don’t like to do is I never wanna tell a kid something that you can’t follow through with. The games that we’ve decided we’re gonna play Keller, I’ve told him, ‘Hey, you’re gonna play this game.’ I’m not gonna tell you what series it’s gonna be because I don’t want to say you’re going in the fourth series and we’re getting the ball at the minus-one yard line and we change quarterbacks. We’ve tried to be consistent with our message. I think our players respect that.

“I didn’t go into the game and say, ‘Hey, Keller, you’re gonna play.'”

Chryst transferred from Stanford as a graduate athlete and came to Tennessee hoping to win the Vols’ starting quarterback job. He joined UT over the summer and battled Guarantano throughout fall camp for the right to lead Tennessee’s offense.

In the end, though, Guarantano won the starting position, and he’s done nothing to give that job up to Chryst.

Pruitt says he doesn’t want to hurt Guarantano’s confidence by making him feel like he has to look over his shoulder if he messes up. And he respects Chryst for how he’s handled the situation.

“Another part of that is you don’t want the other guy looking over his shoulder. You want him to be able to play with confidence,” Pruitt added. “That’s the one thing to me about Keller Chryst that I respect so much is that he’s come in here and been a phenomenal teammate, and our players really kinda rally around him. Him and Jarrett have really worked well together.

“We were gonna go with Jarrett (on Saturday), and if we needed to make a move, we would make a move.”

On the season, Guarantano has completed 64.4 percent of his 174 pass attempts for 1,399 yards, eight touchdowns, and two interceptions as Tennessee’s starting quarterback.

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