Is Polarizing Guarantano the Right Quarterback for Tennessee?
Tennessee had a tale of two halves against Georgia, outscoring the Bulldogs 21-17 in the first half, and getting hammered 27-0 in the second half en route to the 44-21 win for Georgia. Tennessee's highly touted offensive line struggled the entire game against an outstanding Georgia defense, the normally clean Vols were hampered by a multitude of penalties, and the offensive play calling was more than a little suspect. All that said, the game ultimately swung on another out of character stat for the Vols. Coming into the game against Georgia, Tennessee hadn't turned the ball over at all. The Vols turned it over three times to the Bulldogs in the second half alone, all coming at the expense of fifth-year senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, something that has unfortunately been completely in character in his Tennessee career.
Guarantano is one of the most polarizing players in Tennessee history. Among the fan base, everyone seems to have an opinion on the Tennessee signal callers, and all of those opinions are strong. Guarantano is and has been a lightning rod over his career in Knoxville from his first game as a redshirt freshman on the sidelines against Georgia Tech. This is all despite the fact that Guarantano is extremely well-spoken, humble, and is unquestionably a team-first player. In fact, the divide comes in part from the fact that Guarantano is such a good human being off the field. Even his most fervent detractors have to admit and admire the physical toughness that Guarantano has shown throughout his career. As a freshman and sophomore, Guarantano took an absolute shelling behind terrible offensive line play. As a junior, despite better play up front, he sustained multiple injuries and played through them all. Even early in his senior campaign, Guarantano showed Saturday in Athens that he is capable of withstanding a ferocious pounding from a good defense. No matter what, in his time in Knoxville, Guarantano has shown that the orange and white, being a Tennessee Volunteer, matters to him. Even after games where he played poorly, it is absolutely clear that Jarrett Guarantano leaves it all of the field each time he goes out. When speculation swirled this off season that Guarantano may elect to grad transfer, he came back to Knoxville, talking about what the program meant to him. It is more than intangibles as well, with Guarantano showing the kind of play he is capable of several times this season. The go-ahead touchdown to Josh Palmer against South Carolina as well as his pair of scores to Palmer against Georgia were spectacularly thrown balls. He has played some outstanding games in his Tennessee career, showing what he is capable of as a quarterback. This season, Guarantano has been asked to be more of a game manager, to keep the offense on schedule, take the plays his running game created, and avoid mistakes. It was a role he had done well in until the second half against Georgia.
That second half encapsulated everything that fans frustrated with Guarantano have felt. He opened the second half with a costly fumble, and then the next drive he made a terrible decision to throw a ball late and off his back foot that was intercepted. The next drive Guarantano would fumble again for a major loss, but the Vols would recover. There was another pass in the third quarter Guarantano threw a hitch route under duress that a Georgia corner dropped. The cherry on top of a disastrous second half was another fumble that resulted in a scoop and score for Georgia to salt the game away. As noted earlier, the Tennessee offensive line did not play well on Saturday, particularly in the second half. The play calling did neither Guarantano or his line any favors, regularly setting them in third and long, allowing an excellent Georgia pass rush to tee off. Still, three turnovers from one player in a half is simply unacceptable. Even being hit, Guarantano was carrying the ball low, not mindful of pressure and hands swatting at him. He failed again to feel the pressure coming, and as a result coughed the ball up when hit. Guarantano did what game managers absolutely can't do, he made catastrophic mistakes. What's worse, he made them in bunches. The frustrating thing for fans is that this is the same story for Guarantano throughout his career, one mistake leads to more. Guarantano cares about winning and losing, but the problem is that he cares too much at times. His coaches have talked about Guarantano struggling to let a bad play go, and the result is that he tends to snowball, reverting to more bad habits. After seeing this happen yet again, Tennessee fans are left wondering about what could be with better quarterback play. Guarantano, love him or hate him, is a known commodity at this point in his career, with talented unknowns on the bench.
Is a quarterback change the answer? Some teams in the SEC have already made switches to great success. Georgia electing to play Stetson Bennett and Missouri with Conner Bazelak already this season have been dramatically more productive on offense than with their opening day starters. It feels like the analysis on Tennessee has been that they are limited by quarterback play for years now. While the offensive line struggled against Georgia, one of the ways to stop a team blitzing relentlessly is for a quarterback to recognize the pressure and hit his hot routes before the pressure gets home. The thinking is that the offensive line helps the quarterback, but at times the quarterback has to help his offensive line. It isn't unreasonable to ask your quarterback to make some plays without great protection, and great quarterbacks make enough that teams think long and hard about sending a blitz at them. Against Tennessee, Georgia loaded the box, attacked the run, and dared Tennessee to beat them through the air. Then, when the Vols were doing precisely that at the half, they doubled down on that same strategy. They dared Jarrett Guarantano to stand in against pressure, find the open man, and make big throws to win the game, after he had shown he was capable of it in the first half. Georgia obviously made the right decision, because after forcing the first fumble, Guarantano was not the same player.
So what is the answer for Tennessee? Do they trust their four year starter to right the ship and avoid more catastrophic mistakes, doing enough to help them win? Or is it enough after four years and time for Tennessee to roll the dice with one of their talented youngsters? That question is ultimately up to Jeremy Pruitt, who said after the game he, “Never thought about a quarterback change.” Pruitt also said that they were going to review film and, “The guys that didn't play so well, we'll replace them.” It is hard to imagine that Guarantano isn't going to be one of those players that Pruitt identifies with a poor performance. Still, Pruitt has given Guarantano a dramatically longer leash than pretty much any other player on the team. Pruitt has been quick to pull players for under performing or making mistakes, and this has resulted in Guarantano being benched. Still, Pruitt has been quick to put Guarantano back into games, even when his replacements were more effective in the offense. At some point, the Vols have to find an answer to quarterback, because wherever someone sits on the Guarantano debate, it is clear at this point there is a hard ceiling for the Vols while he is at the helm. Eventually Tennessee wants to find someone that can consistently make plays, rather than flash, and that can take over a game rather than manage it. Right now they need to find someone that can avoid multiple crippling mistakes. If that player is going to be Jarrett Guarantano, his mental toughness after making an error has to start resembling his physical toughness, shrugging it off rather than losing composure and spiraling.