Just a few weeks ago, Tennessee faced a two-quarterback offense when they traveled down to Gainesville to take on the Florida Gators. Granted, one Florida quarterback was enough to torch the Vols, as redshirt junior Kyle Trask had a career day in his first career start, completing 20 of his 28 passes for 293 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. But head coach Dan Mullen used redshirt freshman Emory Jones in some packages as well, and Jones finished 4-of-6 for 20 yards and had a five-yard run.
This upcoming weekend, Tennessee could see another dual-quarterback system from an SEC opponent.
Mississippi State (3-2, 1-1 SEC) has been dealing with injuries to Tommy Stevens, a grad transfer quarterback from Penn State who has served as the Bulldogs’ starter for most of the season. But they’ve gotten some solid play from freshman Garrett Shrader in relief. Shrader has started in place of Stevens, and he’s played when Stevens has had to exit games early or has been pulled.
Both quarterbacks have had their highlights, and both have had their struggles. But overall, both have been able to help Mississippi State’s offense find success.
The Bulldogs may be last in the SEC in passing yards per game, but that’s more due to the fact that Mississippi State has a superb rushing attack thanks to running back Kylin Hill. Shrader is also a capable runner from the quarterback spot and is second on the team in rushing yards with 312. Mississippi State is seventh in the SEC in passer rating and in team completion percentage, so the efficiency is there even if the overall yardage isn’t.
But which quarterback will play for the Bulldogs on Saturday? According to head coach Joe Moorhead, both could see the field.
“Both Tommy and Garrett are a little nicked up right now,” Moorhead said to reporters during his Monday press conference. “They’re not included on the injury list because they’e not out. Both of them are working through some lower body things. Both of them practiced yesterday. Today’s an off day, so they’ll be able to come in and get some rehab and treatment on their own.
“We kinda have a plan with what we expect to do with both of them healthy. They need to grind through the week, and we’ll work the plan and see what we have.”
When asked if he has a starter in mind against the Vols, Moorhead said he does, but he also has a plan to play both quarterbacks. There’s also a chance both could be on the field at the same time.
“We have a starter in mind right now. That doesn’t preclude both from playing either in a separate series or both playing at the same time,” Moorhead stated. “We have a plan for one to start and one to play or possibly two to play at the same time. We’re covering all the bases.”
On the season, Tommy Stevens has a better completion percentage and better quarterback rating, but Garrett Shrader has been the more mobile quarterback and is a true dual-threat. Stevens has completed 31 of his 58 passes (63.8 percent) for 448 yards, five touchdowns, and two interceptions. He has two rushing touchdowns and 26 rushing yards on 25 carries. Shrader, meanwhile, has 511 passing yards on 40-of-68 passing (58.8 percent) and has thrown two touchdowns and one interception. He has 312 rushing yards and two scores on 46 carries.
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt has already taken a look at what both quarterbacks have to offer, and he thinks the two are actually pretty similar on the field.
“That’s one of the things I was looking at this morning: What is the difference with No. 6 (Shrader) and No. 7 (Stevens) in the game?” Pruitt said during his Monday press conference. “I don’t see a whole lot. I had an opportunity last week — because we were off — to watch the Auburn game (against Mississippi State), and I saw Shrader playing. It looks like the running part of (Nick) Fitzgerald, who was there before. Shrader can throw the football — you see how the game’s called. As you go back and look at their body of work, the other kid is running the football just as much, too.
“I think that’s who they are, so I don’t see a whole lot of difference.”
Mississippi State enters this weekend’s game against Tennessee coming off a bye week, but their previous game before the bye wasn’t a pretty one. The Bulldogs got taken to the woodshed by Auburn, losing on The Plains by a score of 56-23. Mississippi State trailed 21-0 before the first quarter was even halfway over, and the Tigers were up 49-9 early in the third quarter before calling off the dogs. Mississippi State didn’t score their first touchdown until 2:13 left in the third quarter.
Tommy Stevens only played sparingly in that game, completing one of his three passes for seven yards. Stevens took a big hit and was knocked out of the game in the first half, and Shrader led the offense the rest of the game. The freshman finished 12-of-23 passing for 209 yards and two touchdowns, and he led the Bulldogs in rushing with 89 yards, adding a rushing score in the final minute of the game.
Tennessee has played two quarterbacks themselves in their last two games, but the Vols are likely to only use one quarterback against Mississippi State unless there’s an injury involved.
Redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano started the first four games of the season for the Vols, including their road contest against Florida two weeks ago. But he was pulled to start the second half, and true freshman Brian Maurer directed the offense for a few drives before throwing an interception and being benched himself.
But Pruitt gave the offense over to Maurer this past weekend against No. 3 Georgia, and the freshman thrived in his new role, going 14-of-28 for 259 yards, two touchdowns, an interception, and a fumble. Guarantano did play in the game, but it was only when Maurer was injured on two separate occasions.
Both teams have questions around their quarterback position heading into Saturday’s noon kick-off, and only time will tell if Mississippi State employs a two-quarterback system against the Vols.