After Kentucky Loss, Pruitt Has Serious QB Questions to Answer
The Vols hadn't lost at home to Kentucky since 1984. After an abysmal effort, an offensive meltdown and absolutely baffling quarterback decisions, the Wildcats stunned the Vols in Neyland Stadium.
Despite Kentucky having success running the ball in the second half on a defense that was worn down, the loss for this game rests firmly with the Tennessee offense. Specifically, it rests on the shoulders of fifth-year senior and four-year starter Jarrett Guarantano after another catastrophic performance against the Wildcats. It also rests with Jeremy Pruitt for continuing to stick with Guarantano when he continued to make catastrophic mistakes and be completely ineffective.
Pruitt has been quick to replace players at every other position when they make errors, even replacing other quarterbacks for errors, but continues to stay with Guarantano. He finally made the change to Harrison Bailey late in the fourth quarter, but it was far too little and much, much too late. Pruitt's stubbornness to stick with Guarantano resulted in a loss to Kentucky, which is unacceptable, and was the first loss at home against the Wildcats in 36 years.
Guarantano has been erratic for his entire career at Tennessee, but when he makes mistakes, they tend to come in bunches. He followed a disastrous second half against Georgia with an even more disastrous first half against Kentucky. The fifth-year senior lost a fumble on a play where he was untouched, driving in Kentucky territory after his defense forced a turnover. He then proceeded to throw not just one, but two pick-sixes to the opportunistic Wildcat defense. It is worth noting on both of those interceptions, Guarantano was well-protected and had time.
This disaster of a start continued in the second half, when Guarantano failed to recognize Kentucky defenders clearly walking a blitz up to his blind side pre-snap. He dropped to throw, set up as if he had time to look for a long ball, and was promptly sacked from behind by the pressure he failed to recognize pre-snap or feel in the pocket. As he has done on many occasions, Guarantano compounded his mistake of a sack with a fumble, which starting left tackle Wanya Morris recovered. The resulting recovery saw Morris, a key piece of the Tennessee line, injured on the play. The disastrous plays from Guarantano put the Vols in a massive hole, but his ineptitude following them crippled them.
From the second half of the Georgia game to the end of the first half of the Kentucky game, Guarantano had six turnovers, five fumbles—three lost—three interceptions and three defensive touchdowns. Those are staggeringly bad numbers. Beyond those mistakes, Guarantano was completely ineffective as a passer again. Once the mistakes started, the Vols abandoned their passing game. Guarantano was missing easy throws, open receivers, and throwing off his back foot. Deliveries on balls came late, and should have resulted in another turnover in the final drive of the first half for Tennessee.
As much as Pruitt has talked about his trust in his quarterback “giving the team the best chance to win,” it was evident that was not the case by the way he and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney handled the play-calling. The most effective drive of the day for the Vols featured 11 straight run plays. While Pruitt did pull Guarantano twice, the determination to stick with him until the ship was well and truly sunk is baffling, raising further questions.
If Pruitt is sticking with Guarantano out of some loyalty to his senior, while admirable on a character level, it is inexplicable and unfair in terms of winning and losing football games. Pruitt has been quick to pull other players when they make mistakes, believing in the next man up. This has built some quality depth for Tennessee at several positions, and has allowed some younger players to step up as valuable parts of the team. It also enforces that things need to be done correctly, and if they aren't, Pruitt will happily bring in another player that will.
Even at quarterback, after a JT Shrout interception on his first throw—a terrible decision into triple coverage—Pruitt immediately benched Shrout for Guarantano. In the 2019 season, Brian Maurer was given a similarly short leash, sometimes after leading scoring drives, being replaced by Guarantano who had made catastrophic mistakes before his benching and would make more after them. The last two games and indeed Guarantano's entire career at Tennessee simply make this loyalty to him baffling.
If Guarantano truly is the best option that the Vols have at quarterback, then that also falls on Pruitt to answer. Shrout, Maurer and Bailey were all recruited to Knoxville by Pruitt. Even with COVID, their lack of development, especially with Shrout and Maurer, reflects on Pruitt and his staff. If Guarantano is the best option for the Vols, head and shoulders above those behind him, then Jim Chaney and quarterback coach Chris Weinke have some serious questions to answer about their failures to develop a talented group. It also begs the question of why not make the change to Harrison Bailey sooner? In a year where eligibility doesn't matter, Bailey was a five-star prospect that had his development slowed by COVID. Still, if the Vols are going to suffer through these kinds of mistakes and this type of offense, why not let the freshman gain experience, rather than trotting out a fifth-year senior that continues to make freshman mistakes in threes and fours?
Fair or otherwise, the expectation at Tennessee is to win against Kentucky. No exceptions, no excuses. This is a game that Tennessee expects to win. The Vols not only lost at home, but also were blown out by a Wildcat team they could have beaten. Tennessee has lost to Kentucky three times since 1984. Guarantano was the starting quarterback in two of those games. He is the only Volunteer starting quarterback to lose twice to the Wildcats in 40 years. While everything doesn’t come down to the quarterback, it was the position that was the weak link that failed the Vols on Saturday. Bailey played the final drive of the game for the Vols, and it will be interesting to see if he continues to be the starting quarterback next week at Alabama. If Pruitt continues his play of Guarantano against the Tide, the outlook for that game seems bleak.