UPDATE: Brian Maurer has officially been named the Vols’ starting QB for Saturday against Mississippi State.
True freshman quarterback Brian Maurer made his first career start on Saturday against No. 3 Georgia. Maurer was given control of Tennessee’s offense after redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano failed to perform up to standard the first four weeks of the season.
Aside from a few missed throws and two turnovers, Maurer performed well against a stout Georgia defense. Maurer completed 14 of his 28 pass attempts for 259 yards, two touchdowns, an interception, and a fumble. His 259 passing yards were the second-most by a true freshman in his first career start in Tennessee history, and he helped the Vols’ offense average 5.53 yards per play against a Bulldog defense that came into the game only allowing 4.15 yards a play to opponents.
So what’s next for the true freshman signal caller?
Head coach Jeremy Pruitt said on Monday during his weekly press conference that unless Maurer has a bad week of practice, he’ll be Tennessee’s starter again on Saturday when the Vols host Mississippi State.
“We’re gonna see how this week goes,” Pruitt said. “I think he’ll really have to have a bad week of practice not to (be the starter). But we’ll see how the week goes.”
Assuming Maurer starts this Saturday and remains Tennessee’s starter the rest of the season, what should be expected of him as he runs the Vols’ offense?
In Maurer’s first three games of his Tennessee career, he’s played against two of the toughest defenses on UT’s 2019 schedule. Maurer started the second half of the Vols’ road game against No. 9 Florida two weeks ago, and he played against No. 3 Georgia on Saturday. Both the Gators and Bulldogs have swarming defenses that have harassed quarterbacks all season.
Heading into their match-up with the Vols, Florida was allowing 207 yards per game through the air and had picked off four passes in three games. After playing Tennessee, Towson, and Auburn, the Gators currently have the second-best pass defense in the SEC in terms of yards allowed per game, giving up just 183.3 yards a contest while intercepting 12 passes in six games. That’s not even to mention that Florida leads the SEC in sacks by a wide margin with 26. The next-closest teams are Auburn and Ole Miss with 17 apiece.
Georgia, meanwhile, was giving up just 205.5 passing yards a game before taking on the Vols, and they had picked off four passes in four games. Georgia also gets after the quarterback effectively, as they’re tied for the fourth-most sacks in the SEC with 15.
Maurer cut his teeth against some pretty stingy defenses. But aside from Missouri and Alabama, the rest of Tennessee’s schedule doesn’t look nearly as daunting when it comes to the types of defenses UT will face.
Missouri has the No. 1 pass defense in the SEC right now, allowing only 138.4 yards a game through the air while intercepting seven passes compared to allowing only three passing touchdowns. Alabama has the No. 3 pass defense in the conference, giving up 190.6 passing yards a game and picking off six passes compared to allowing seven touchdowns.
But none of Tennessee’s other remaining opponents outside of those two are in the top half of the SEC in terms of pass defense.
The Vols’ next opponent, Mississippi State, is 10th in the SEC in passing yards allowed, giving up 243.4 yards a game through the air in five games. Teams have tossed six touchdowns against the Bulldogs compared to four interceptions, and State are allowing 8.1 yards per attempt to their opponents. That’s the second-worst average in the conference.
Kentucky (8th), South Carolina (11th), and Vanderbilt (13th) are all also in the bottom half of the SEC in pass defense, and only the Wildcats have intercepted more passes than touchdowns they’ve allowed, picking off five passes compared to giving up three touchdowns.
UAB, Tennessee’s final non-conference opponent, isn’t allowing a lot of passing yards a game, giving up just 183.4 yards per outing. But their secondary has been far from efficient otherwise, as teams have tossed eight touchdowns against the Blazers, and UAB has only intercepted one pass all season.
All in all, Tennessee’s remaining schedule sets up somewhat favorably for Maurer and the Vols’ passing offense, and the same can be said for UT’s rushing attack, too. Only Missouri (3rd) ranks in the top half of the SEC in run defense of Tennessee’s six remaining SEC foes.
Given that information, it’s not hard to imagine Maurer putting together a strong true freshman campaign as Tennessee’s starter. Saturday’s game against Georgia could’ve just been a flash in the pan, but odds are it wasn’t, and odds are Maurer will stay in command of UT’s offense the rest of this season barring injury.
Last week, we took a look at how other true freshmen quarterbacks fared in their first career starts at Tennessee prior to Maurer’s first start. But how did some of those quarterbacks fare after their first start?
The most games a true freshman has started at quarterback for the Vols is eight, and that was from Peyton Manning in 1994. If Maurer starts the remainder of the regular season for Tennessee, he’ll match that total.
Manning’s debut season saw him complete just seven of his 14 passes for 79 yards in his first career start — a 10-9 win over Washington State — but he had a decent season overall, finishing the year with 1,141 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, and six interceptions on 89-of-144 passing. Manning finished 7-1 as a starter that season.
Casey Clausen (7) and Erik Ainge (6) are the only other quarterbacks in school history to start half or more than half of the regular season as true freshmen. Clausen went 6-1 as a true freshman starter in 2001, completing 121 of his 194 pass attempts for 1,473 yards, 15 touchdowns, and six interceptions. Ainge was 4-2 as a starter and played in the first three games of the 2004 season in a platoon system with fellow freshman QB Brent Schaeffer. Ainge was 109-of-198 for 1,452 yards, 17 touchdowns, and nine interceptions in his first season.
Tyler Bray is another notable true freshman starter at quarterback, starting the final five games of Tennessee’s 2010 season. Bray holds the record for most passing yards and touchdowns by a true freshman in his first career start, slinging five scores and totaling 325 yards against Memphis in a 50-14 victory. He finished his freshman year with 1,849 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions on 125-of-224 passing. His yards, touchdowns, and completions are all true freshmen records for Tennessee.
Josh Dobbs also started as a true freshman for a number of games, and while his first season running the offense didn’t go as well as the previous four quarterbacks mentioned, he wound up with a strong career after his debut campaign.
Dobbs took over in 2013 after every other scholarship quarterback on UT’s roster was injured. He started the final four games of the season and finished with 695 yards, two touchdowns, and six interceptions on 72-of-121 passing. Dobbs also ran for 189 yards and a score on 38 carries.
All five of those quarterbacks ended up spending their entire collegiate careers at Tennessee, and all five of them are scattered across UT’s record books.
None of this is to say that Maurer will follow in the footsteps of Bray, Ainge, Dobbs, Clausen, or Manning, but those five quarterbacks were all given a chance in their first year at Tennessee and eventually asserted themselves into the spotlight.
The same could happen to Maurer, but with a highly-rated quarterback joining Tennessee’s roster next year in four-star Harrison Bailey and former Maryland QB Kasim Hill gaining eligibility next year, nothing is guaranteed for the young signal caller.
Still, Maurer’s immediate future looks bright, and the long-term prospects of him at quarterback seem to be trending upward as well.