Later today when the preseason All-SEC teams are announced, I don’t expect to see Jarrett Guarantano’s name. Tua Tagovailoa had one of the most impressive statistical seasons we’ve ever seen last year. Jake Fromm’s team is 24-5 the last two years, and he had a 30-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Kellen Mond seems to be in line for a huge year at Texas A&M, Kelly Bryant brings excitement from Clemson to Missouri, and there are other returning names – Joe Burrow, Jake Bentley, Felepie Franks – whose teams were more successful than Tennessee last season.
But Guarantano is not only Tennessee’s clear answer at quarterback; he’s quickly becoming the face of the program, as many at SEC Media Days have pointed out. And all of that comes with an underlying assumption: with Jim Chaney and a can’t-be-worse offensive line, this will be Guarantano’s best season yet.
That would be a pretty good result, considering in a couple of areas Guarantano is already one of the best Tennessee quarterbacks of the last 30 years.
After the win over Kentucky last season, Guarantano’s completion percentage was over 65%. He was on pace for the best season in that department since Erik Ainge completed two-thirds of his passes in 2006. But then he was knocked out of the Missouri game at 0-for-2, and went 13-of-29 at Vanderbilt to finish the season at 62.2%.
Still, for his career Guarantano trails only his secret weapon ($) in completion percentage:
(stats via Sports Reference)
Daryl Dickey is Tennessee’s overall career leader in completion percentage at 63%, but attempted only 162 passes in his career, stepping in for the injured Tony Robinson in 1985. For multi-year starters, it’s Manning, then Guarantano.
With Guarantano’s 2018 season ending on a sour note, he really arrived at this percentage without the kind of easily-recognizable great year most of these other quarterbacks had. Here’s the best single season in completion percentage for Tennessee’s multi-year starters:
And the other primary strength Guarantano already brings to the table: his accuracy includes not only completion percentage, but a lack of interceptions. Three last season, and only two in the second half of 2017. That’s five interceptions in 385 passing attempts, meaning Guarantano throws a pick on just 1.3% of his attempts. Here’s how that compares to his predecessors:
Obviously, there’s more to playing quarterback than limiting incompletions and interceptions. Manning’s career highs for both came in his sophomore season, but he increased his yards per attempt from 7.8 to 8.7 to his junior year while his completion percentage dropped slightly. He also threw eight more interceptions (to be fair, that ridiculous 1995 season with four interceptions in 380 attempts was going to be hard to top). If your quarterback is good enough to take more chances downfield, some of those chances are going to go the other way.
As we’ve pointed out throughout the off-season, Tennessee ran fewer plays than any team in college football last season. If he stays healthy, Guarantano will get more than the 20.5 passing attempts per game he had in 2018. With that should come more risk. There’s no guarantee his interception percentage won’t go up and his completion percentage won’t go down.
But with all his targets returning, and many of them proven threats? With better protection? And in the hands of Jim Chaney? Everyone expects Guarantano to be better. And he’s already building on a remarkably accurate foundation.
I don’t know if he’ll earn an All-SEC mention by season’s end. But I do think if things go right for the Vols this fall, it will come through the unfolding realization that Tennessee has a very capable quarterback on its hands.