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Column: The Vols’ QB Decision is an Easy One

(Photo via Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics)

If you’ve spent any time on our site, listened to any of our podcasts, or heard me on any radio interviews or podcasts outside of RTI, you’ll know that I was a big supporter of Jarrett Guarantano all throughout the offseason. I thought (and still do think) that Guarantano got too much of the blame for some of UT’s woes in 2018. He showed promise and didn’t make mistakes. The latter of those two was a big reason I was a believer in his ability to take another step in 2019.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

Guarantano has adopted a new, more aggressive mentality this season. That’s usually not a bad thing for a quarterback, but apparently it’s backfired big time for the redshirt junior. He’s now making mistakes he didn’t even make as a redshirt freshman back in 2017 with a worse offensive line and worse overall offensive supporting cast than what he has around him right now.

In 246 pass attempts last season, Guarantano threw just three interceptions. He had the lowest interception rate in the entire SEC, a conference that had heavyweight quarterbacks such as Tua Tagovailoa and Jake Fromm. This year, Guarantano has already eclipsed his interception total from last season, and he hasn’t even attempted 100 passes yet.

Guarantano has thrown four interceptions in just 93 pass attempts this season, and he’s lucky that number isn’t higher. He had an interception called back against Georgia State and had Jauan Jennings corral a potential pick against BYU, too. He also was nearly picked off on his first throw against UT-Chattanooga a week ago.

When you look at Guarantano’s time at Tennessee, some of his struggles are maybe more easily understood than just looking at this one season in a vacuum. This year marks his fourth offensive coordinator in four years, his fourth quarterbacks coach in that same time frame, and his second head coach in that same four-year stretch. Not only that, but Guarantano has been right in the middle of arguably the worst culture in UT football history in the end of the Butch Jones era and the holdovers from that in the beginning of the Jeremy Pruitt era.

Guarantano has four different offensive systems rattling around in his head, four different styles of play, and four different styles of coaching at his position and the entire offense. Not only that, but he was absolutely beat up in his first year and a half as a starter in 2017 and 2018, and it’s clearly affected his mentality on the field.

Jeremy Pruitt has seen that and has tried to get Guarantano to overcome that mental hang up.

“There’s times you kinda got to take the bull by the horns and say ‘let’s go,’” Pruitt said to reporters 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 (Guarantano) 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.”

When’s the last time you saw Guarantano do what Pruitt just described? The Vols’ road upset over Auburn last season? Maybe the Vols’ home upset against Kentucky in November last year?

The fact that I can only think of two instances in 22 career starts for Guarantano should tell you what you need to know.

All of this isn’t to say that Guarantano is an awful player. He’s not. But for whatever reason, whether it’s overthinking, bad tendencies rearing their ugly heads, lack of confidence, or whatever it is, Guarantano has severely regressed to start 2019.

“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 on Saturday. “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.”

Pruitt’s right; Guarantano has ability to be a good player. He’s just not tapping into that this season. And Pruitt is also right when he says that Tennessee hasn’t gotten good play from the quarterback position in three of their four games to start this season.

“We have not gotten great play from that position, in my opinion, in three out of four games,” Pruitt said of the Vols’ quarterback position. “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.”

All of this leads me to a fairly simple conclusion: It’s time to try something different at quarterback.

Pruitt himself acknowledged that during Tennessee’s dreadful loss to Florida on Saturday, benching Guarantano at halftime in favor of true freshman Brian Maurer to start the second half. Maurer instantly brought a spark to the offense on his first drive, and he helped lead UT’s offense down to get their only points of the game.

After that, the momentum quickly faded as Florida adjusted, and Maurer proved why true freshmen gaining their first major SEC experience on the road rarely have success. He made several poor decisions and threw a really bad interception, which resulted in Pruitt pulling him in favor of Guarantano again until late in the fourth quarter.

But Maurer’s mistakes are more forgivable. For one, he’s a true freshman, and that was his first time seeing an SEC defense and playing against SEC speed. Secondly, his interception was at least a result of him trying hard and trying to bring UT back. Yes, he’s not going to be able to make a throw that results in three touchdowns all on its own like he was trying to do, but Maurer at least looked more energetic, more poised, and slightly more in command in his two series to start the second half.

It was far from perfect, but Maurer’s two drives saw him make better throws and better decisions than Guarantano, a fourth-year player, was making in the first half and in the majority of his game action in the first three weeks of the season.

Tennessee has a bye week coming up before they host a top-5 Georgia team on October 5th. This bye week is the perfect time to have some open competition not only at quarterback, but also all across the board. The bye week should be a perfect time to prepare Maurer — or JT Shrout — to run the offense. Maurer showed off some of his ability really well when the coaching staff had time to prepare him during halftime of the Florida game. Imagine what can be done if you give him or Shrout a whole extra week of practice to prepare for a game.

I don’t think Tennessee has a long term answer at quarterback on their roster currently. That may not come until Harrison Bailey joins the Vols as part of their 2019 class, or if UT adds a transfer in the offseason. But what’s there to lose at this point turning to a young, inexperienced QB?

You could make the argument that giving the offense over to a freshman like Maurer against Georgia is setting him up for failure and could potentially damage his confidence. Okay, so do you give him his first start the following week against Mississippi State, a team that ranks right behind Georgia in terms of pass defense in the SEC? After the Vols play the Bulldogs, they travel to Alabama. That’s even less ideal.

If you wait to start Maurer until the Vols’ October 26th match-up with South Carolina or their November 2nd game against UAB, then you’re doing everyone — including Guarantano, Maurer, the entire offense, and Vol fans — a disservice.

The bye week provides the opportunity to get him or Shrout ready to lead the offense. No, the opponent coming out of the bye week isn’t what you want, but Tennessee doesn’t have an ideal match-up for a young quarterback to make his first start for at least another month.

Josh Dobbs’ first action as a Vol came on the road against Alabama in 2013. His first start the following week came against a No. 10 Missouri team that picked off more passes than any other SEC defense that season. Casey Clausen’s first start came as a true freshman off a bye week against Alabama back in 2000. Peyton Manning’s first start as a true freshman was on the road against Mississippi State in 1994.

It’s not fair to compare Maurer to any of those other quarterbacks, and that’s not what I’m doing. The point is that there isn’t really an ideal time to start a true freshman at quarterback in the SEC, but sometimes you have to do so.

To me, it’s time to rip off the band aid and see what you have with a younger quarterback. The Vols aren’t likely to beat Georgia no matter who is at quarterback, so give Maurer or Shrout the game experience they need and prepare them for more winnable games against Mississippi State, South Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt.

Clearly, Guarantano just doesn’t have it this season, and another week full of practice doesn’t seem likely to fix his issues. The decision should be an easy one for Pruitt and Jim Chaney as long as Maurer or Shrout don’t bomb at practice over the next two weeks. If they do, then it becomes a more difficult decision because you can’t reward poor practices with playing time. That sets a dangerous precedent at every other position.

But assuming that doesn’t happen, then it’s time to try and see if UT’s offense can get any more traction with someone else leading the way.

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