If you think Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt is mum on his quarterback battle this preseason because he wants to lob a bit of gamesmanship in the direction of West Virginia, I think you’re off.
It’s because he’s simply not enamored with either of his two frontrunners — or anybody in particular — when it comes to who’s going to lead this Tennessee offense.
Redshirt sophomore Jarrett Guarantano’s name comes up the most as being the favorite to win the job, but graduate transfer senior Keller Chryst hasn’t been ruled out yet, either. While it would be a long shot for Will McBride or freshman JT Shrout to trot out with the 1s against West Virginia, they haven’t been officially axed in the race, either.
Pruitt knows UT has made improvements at a lot of places on the field. Offensively, in particular, the Vols have shown glimmers of hope. The running backs actually have the potential to be stout, considering Ty Chandler is the flashiest player on the team, Tim Jordan followed up his spring-game breakout with a solid preseason and Michigan State transfer Madre London is going to be hard to handle, especially in short-yardage situations.
The Vols’ wide receiving corps hasn’t been consistent in the first couple of weeks of camp, but unit coach David Johnson is known for getting the most out of his guys. If veteran Jauan Jennings gets over his bumps and bruises, he’ll lead a group that has a lot of upside with steady players like Marquez Callaway and Brandon Johnson. Josh Palmer has enjoyed a nice camp, and Jordan Murphy looks like he could help a lot right away. Maybe even freshman Cedric Tillman will have a role. The tight end position got a major boost from JUCO transfer Dominick Wood-Anderson, who should be targeted often.
Then you’ve got an offensive line group that was an atrocity a year ago but has begun to look serviceable. If Trey Smith returns at 100 percent, you can add him to a group where newcomers Brandon Kennedy, Jahmir Johnson and Jerome Carvin are carving a role. If Chance Hall can help and K’Rojhn Calbert can continue to improve, the group looks much better with veterans like Ryan Johnson, Drew Richmond, Marcus Tatum and Riley Locklear in the mix, too.
Which brings us to quarterback, where all we know is there is one, big rippling fart noise in the reports.
Come on, man.
If Guarantano can’t emerge as The Man in Year 3, that’s a cause for concern. He has all the tools: a big arm, decent speed, can make all the throws and isn’t too erratic. The New Jersey native really struggled a year ago with his internal clock, and that seems to be an issue so far in camp, as well. You can’t make plays if plays flicker out in the backfield. Guarantano must learn to feel pressure, evade it and deliver strikes to his receivers or tuck and run. He can’t take too many drive-killing sacks.
Chryst isn’t the same kind of playmaker and doesn’t have near the arm as Guarantano, but does he advance the unit downfield better? That’s something we can’t know. He’s a big kid, but he isn’t as physically gifted as Guarantano, so why hasn’t he been ruled the backup already?
It’s either because he’s been better than reported or because Guarantano isn’t good enough yet. Pruitt needs to keep both guys motivated, and the Vols need for that to translate into quality reps when it matters most.
The truth is it would be a stunner if Chryst won the job. It’s Guarantano’s to lose, and he’s GOING TO be the guy, but he absolutely must take it and run with it. If it’s Chryst early, the Vols are in Kenny Loggins’ danger zone.
Offensive coordinator Tyson Helton has led groups before that featured quality quarterbacks. Brandon Doughty posted record-breaking numbers at Western Kentucky, and Sam Darnold developed into a first-round draft pick under Helton’s tutelage at Southern Cal. But it doesn’t feel like the Vols are going to be a quarterback-led team in 2018, at least not at the beginning of the year.
If the offensive line is improved, the running backs are good enough to be the leaders on the offense. That means all Guarantano [or Chryst] needs to be is a game manager who doesn’t get the team beat by negative plays or turnovers, but they need to be able to make a few [don’t say splash, don’t say splash] big-gainers to get chunk yardage in clutch situations.
In other words, there’s no reason the winner of UT’s quarterback derby can’t be as good as Kentucky’s Stephen Johnson or Texas A&M’s Nick Starkel were a year ago. In a perfect world, you’d love to see Guarantano win the gig, settle into a muted role the way Jake Fromm did for most of the year with Georgia a season ago and then burst out in some big games later in the year.
Nobody is suggesting this year’s Tennessee can be anything like 2017 Georgia. Fromm’s supporting cast was worlds better than anything the Vols can trot out this year. But the cupboard isn’t bare in Knoxville. Butch Jones didn’t recruit enough talent, but the biggest issue was the development of the players once they got to campus; not getting good ones to come.
The Vols got less out of more than any other team in college football during the past five years, without question.
Tennessee doesn’t have the horses to compete with Alabama, Auburn or Georgia (all of which are, sadly, on the ’18 schedule) but that’s not where the season will be made or broken. Huge early-season games loom against West Virginia and Florida, and then UT needs to be in good enough shape and not spiraling out of control in the loss column to be able to finish strong late in the year.
In order to do that — beat the Mountaineers or Gators and reel off a nice season-ending streak — the Vols can’t have crappy quarterback play. This team isn’t going to be good enough to be like some of those Nick Saban-led champion Alabama teams who could have propped up any old stiff under center.
They’ve got to have somebody who takes care of the ball and can take care of a drive with a big play every once in a while.
Guarantano [or Chryst… but really Guarantano] need to prove they’re worth their scholarship. It’s time. Anything less, and it’s going to be a long football season again on Rocky Top.