There are plenty of scenarios we wouldn’t enjoy this fall – no playmakers emerge on the defensive line, freshmen don’t emerge to build hope for the future – but it’s probably fair to say nothing would impact Tennessee’s ceiling like losing Jarrett Guarantano for any length of time.
Some of that is the possibility of what Guarantano could be with another year under his belt. Tennessee’s starter was seventh among SEC quarterbacks in completion percentage, and higher than that before a banged-up 13-of-31 finish in the last two games. He finished sixth in the league in yards per attempt, and was one of only five quarterbacks in the nation to throw just three interceptions with 200+ passing attempts.
Some of that is the mystery of what’s behind him. This will be the fifth time this decade Tennessee’s backup quarterback(s) has never attempted a pass. Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout could blossom into real options for the Vols in the future, but Tennessee’s best path in the present is for neither of them to take a meaningful snap.
In the post-Fulmer era, only Jonathan Crompton in 2009 and Josh Dobbs in 2015 & 2016 took every meaningful snap as the starting quarterback (throw in Tyler Bray in 2012 if you don’t count his in-game removal against Vanderbilt). In 2010 Bray took command in November as a true freshman.
But four times in the last eight years, Tennessee’s starting quarterback was lost to a multi-game injury: five games for Tyler Bray’s broken thumb in 2011, a combined ten missed starts for Justin Worley in 2013 and 2014, and a shoulder injury taking out Quinten Dormady for the second half of 2017.
From a history standpoint, the game has changed plenty in the last three decades, but consider how, with the exception of Jerry Colquitt’s tragic knee injury on the first drive in 1994, Tennessee’s starting quarterback took every meaningful snap from 1989-1999. A big part of all that winning was having Andy Kelly, Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning, and Tee Martin out there every Saturday. And in ’94 while the Vols worked Todd Helton, Manning, and Brandon Stewart into the mix, they could also hand the ball off to an NFL running back playing behind NFL offensive linemen. If the Vols have those pieces in 2019, we don’t know it yet.
It’s all of these variables – inexperienced backups, starter prone to getting hit, offensive line still young, and the simple math of QB’s anywhere struggling to take every meaningful snap – that cause concern. An injury to Guarantano would create a need for the pause button on Jeremy Pruitt, but that’s easier said than done. In 2011 Tyler Bray put on one of the best passing days of any Vol quarterback against Cincinnati, then got hurt weeks later (along with Justin Hunter) when things felt too far down the road to just say, “Well, this year shouldn’t really count,” effectively.
I think there’s talent on this team, young and old, that’s going to manifest itself this fall in ways that excite us. That can be true on the defensive side of the ball no matter what happens, and can show signs of progress even if the Vols lose their quarterback early in the year. But it does feel like an awful lot of the progress we want is tied into conversations about Guarantano working with this receiving corps for the last time.
It’s also tough to call a conservative game – at least in theory, since Tennessee did it plenty last year – when you’re still playing catch-up in the talent pool. Justin Worley got hurt both times because the Vols were playing to score points and make big plays, but couldn’t keep him upright long enough to do so against the best defenses in the SEC. Tennessee’s best football involves Guarantano, Callaway, and Jennings making a difference. That will involve, on some level, Guarantano facing pressure behind a young offensive line against great defenses.
It’s a fine line to walk, and it’ll be interesting to see how Pruitt and Jim Chaney choose to handle it. You can’t coach or play scared; I think the Vols have a chance to have a really good passing game. It may just require putting the most important piece of that puzzle at risk to earn that reward.