It’s kind of hard to have a full-tilt quarterback competition when only half of your quarterback arsenal is on campus.
So, it isn’t [only] that Jeremy Pruitt has been stubborn with information so far this spring; it’s just that he isn’t able to see the entire picture yet, so there’s no reason to give us any information regarding a hotly anticipated quarterback competition that could ultimately be the difference in this Vols team sputtering along again or climbing toward postseason eligibility.
Throughout Pruitt’s first six press conferences this spring, he mentioned Jarrett Guarantano’s name only once, according to Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Blake Toppmeyer. Though that number has gone up, you’d still be hard-pressed to find anywhere where the first-year head coach praised Guarantano or competitor Will McBride.
Though Guarantano — who started six of Tennessee’s final seven games a season ago — is expected to be a frontrunner for the job, you wouldn’t know it by spring buzz. Pruitt speaks of the redshirt sophomore and McBride (a true sophomore) together, refusing to signal anybody out. He mostly just sidesteps any discussion about individual performances, offers scant praise and talks about both needing to be more consistent.
Practice reports on the pay sites whisper here and there information from sources talking about Guarantano being much sharper more consistently than McBride. Though receivers have dropped their share of passes this spring, Guarantano’s deep ball reportedly has been praised. Just don’t expect to hear that from Pruitt, or his assistants considering Pruitt rarely lets them talk, either.
So, you’re starved for information? Join the club. This has been the least newsworthy spring in my lifetime. That’s probably the way Pruitt wants it, too, considering UT isn’t in any shape to be competing for anything of any substance right now and needs all the practice it can get to return to respectability. But it’s difficult squeezing any morsel of information out of practices that see 80 percent closure and a coaching staff that doesn’t try to control the message; they simply don’t give one at all.
While Guarantano and McBride are on campus and have begun the battle, a key piece of the puzzle awaits. Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst is a big-bodied, rugged signal-caller who has been in some important games for the Cardinal. He’s a pro-style passer, which fits more closely with offensive coordinator Tyson Helton’s philosophy. So, while it would be a mistake and short-sighted to call Chryst the favorite for the job, he at least will have a say-so in the competition. He’ll get to Knoxville this spring, and he’s expected to be Guarantano’s primary competition for the starting gig.
Then there’s incoming true freshman J.T. Shrout. The former California commitment isn’t really expected to factor into the QB battle this year, but given how open it is, it’s not out of the question. If Helton thinks this year is about building for the future and he finds Guarantano isn’t the answer, Shrout is a wild card if he catches on quickly. Still, as turnover-prone as he was in high school, that’s a long shot. He likely needs a year to learn the system, get bigger and get coached up.
Spring practice is offering some glimpses into some position battles and some players who are taking advantage of opportunities. With Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Daniel Bituli limited this spring, junior Quart’e Sapp and sophomore Will Ignont have shined at linebacker. Nigel Warrior looks like a star-in-the-making while other defensive backs such as Baylen Buchanan, Theo Jackson and Cheyenne Labruzza have taken positive steps forward. Shy Tuttle looks like the man in the middle of the line for the Vols, and there’s a lot of excitement around Darrell Taylor.
Offensively, Marquez Callaway and Ty Chandler are exciting players, and even though the offensive line is still searching for depth and cohesion, it’s a positive development that star Trey Smith has done work on the sideline while K’Rojhn Calbert, Chance Hall and Nathan Niehaus are at least back in pads trying to shake off rust from injuries.
It’s not like spring has been devoid of news; it’s just not the news we hoped.
With the spring game looming not too far from now, we’ll all have to wait and see who looks like they’ve grown from the quarterback position. Is Guarantano’s internal clock better, or is he still taking too many sacks? Does he realize when to tuck and run, and does he trust his arm to make all the throws in a vertical attack? Does McBride even fit this system in the least, or is he just valuable depth? Can he see over defenses, and is his pocket presence improved?
These are important questions that will go a long way in determining the quarterback battle. The answers won’t be found in Pruitt’s comments or in practice reports (because there are no visible important sessions on which to report). We’ll be watching at the spring game, hoping to catch a glimmer of what to expect, but even then, it’s going to be impossible to judge anything with the QBs in black jerseys going against a defense that was so bad a season ago.
Pruitt, Helton and Co. are getting an idea how this quarterback battle stands. It helps Guarantano and McBride that they’re on campus getting reps in front of the coaches. It helps Chryst and Shrout that they’re more the types of quarterback who look ready to run a pro-style system.
Which one wins out? We’ll have to wait to find out. We sure aren’t getting any clues this spring.