Jarrett Guarantano’s redshirt junior season hasn’t gotten off to the start that he and Tennessee’s football program had expected.
The fourth-year quarterback and third-year starter was expected to take a large step forward with Jim Chaney as his offensive coordinator, Tee Martin working with him every day in practice, and former Heisman-winning quarterback Chris Weinke as his quarterbacks coach.
Unfortunately for him and UT’s entire team, it just hasn’t happened.
“There’s times you kind of got to take the bull by the horns and say ‘let’s go,'” Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said following the Vols 34-3 loss to Florida on Saturday. “Got to make some plays, and you’ve got to have an impact on the people around you.
“And that’s one of the things I’ve been talking to him about: You’ve been around those folks, whether it’s playing sports or in a room, whatever, somebody’s got positive vibes that makes you feel good, gets excited about being where you’re at and what you’re doing. We need a little bit of that.”
Last season, Guarantano only threw for 1,907 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he completed 62 percent of his passes and was only picked off three times on 246 attempts. Through four games this season, Guarantano has already surpassed his interception total from last season on just 93 attempts.
“I think Jarrett’s got lots of ability to be a really good player, and I’ve said that over and over,” Pruitt said of Guarantano. “We’ve got some good football players on our team, and I think Jarrett’s one of them. I think he can be a really good player, but our best players have got to play good. Our best players got to play good. They can’t make mistakes.”
Guarantano’s stats looked good in Tennessee’s season-opening loss to Georgia State, but there were too many mistakes for a quarterback entering his third year as a starter. Then, against BYU, Guarantano left a lot of points on the field because he was either late getting the football to the intended receiver or he simply didn’t see the open man.
He bounced back against Tennessee-Chattanooga last week, but it was against an FCS opponent. Despite building up confidence in the win over the Mocs, it didn’t take long for him to revert back to the mistakes he made the first two weeks of the season.
“It’s like I told Jarrett, we came out for the second quarter, we get a delay of game,” Pruitt said. “I mean, how many times have you come out of a quarter or a timeout? He’s played a lot of ball to make that mistake, right?
“You know, we’ve got them confused in empty (set), got a guy running wide open for a touchdown, no pressure, miss a throw. Then we throw a ball into trap coverage and give them the ball on our side of the field. Those mistakes we can’t make.”
Guarantano couldn’t orchestrate a scoring drive in the first half against the Gators, and as a result, he sat on the bench to begin the second half. Pruitt called on true freshman Brian Maurer to take over a week after the freshman made his collegiate debut against UTC.
Maurer sparked the Vols’ offense coming out of halftime, immediately driving down the field and producing a scoring drive the resulted in a 40-yard field goal from Brent Cimaglia. On the scoring drive, Maurer completed an impressive 22-yard pass to Brandon Johnson before finding Josh Palmer on third-and-long to pick up a first down.
“We made a few mistakes there, so we went with Brian, and to get Jarrett settled down a little bit,” Pruitt explained. “Brian come in and done a couple of things. He had a really good drive right down the field.
“Right there at the end he kind of threw a ball into triple coverage. If he throws it on the other side, it’s probably a walk-in touchdown, so there are plays out there like that that we’ve left out there a little bit today and have in the past which has hurt our production offensively.”
Maurer finished 4-of-11 for 44 yards and threw an interception in which he was trying to make up the difference on the scoreboard in one play. It signaled the end of his day until late in the fourth quarter in mop up duty.
“It’s a tough situation,” Pruitt added. “He (Maurer) came here to play, tried to give him an opportunity. He done okay there, a little bit in the drive, but there’s some plays out there he’s got to improve on.”
Guarantano was reinserted into the quarterback role and played the remainder of the game before Maurer re-entered to take the snaps on the final drive. On the afternoon, Guarantano was 10-of-17 for 107 yards and two interceptions. He did not have a touchdown toss, though Jauan Jennings did him no favors in the first quarter by dropping a touchdown that wound up getting picked off after Jennings’ drop.
Tennessee enters the bye week with a glaring question mark: Do Chaney, Martin, and Weinke continue to work with Guarantano in hopes that he can turn it around and live up to his potential, or do they begin to prepare for the future with Maurer?
“We have not gotten great play from that position, in my opinion, in three out of four games,” Pruitt stated. “I believe in the guys in the room. We’ve got to play better there, for sure. But you’ve got to take it from the practice field to the game.”
Following the BYU and Tennessee-Chattanooga game, Pruitt was adamant that Guarantano was the best quarterback in the program, saying that anybody who had been around the program the last six months understood that. But following the loss, the second-year head coach admitted that every position on the team is open.
“We got so many young guys that are itching to play, but they’re not hardly ready,” Pruitt said. “Maybe in the next two weeks we can get some of these guys (ready to play).
“It will help us develop some depth and competition a little bit. Then we’ve got some other guys that are a little bit older that they need to mature and learn how to play, too.”