The Tennessee offense has been dreadful over the last two seasons. Most of that has been due to a struggling offensive line and youth at the quarterback position. In 2019, Tennessee returns 17 starters overall, but none will be more important than redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
Now, in Jim Chaney’s offense and entering year four, it’s Guarantano’s time to take ownership of this team.
Starter: Jarrett Guarantano
Aside from Tyson Helton, I’m not sure there was a more polarizing figure in the Tennessee football program than Jarrett Guarantano. The redshirt sophomore drew plenty of ire from the fans for holding the ball too long, and along with Helton, got considerable blame for Tennessee’s inability or unwillingness to consistently push the ball downfield through the air.
Both of these gripes have some legitimacy to them, but they’re also, kind of, “chicken or the egg,” scenarios. Football has so many moving parts, and all those parts have ripple effects that extend out and are interwoven throughout the team, so it can be difficult to know exactly where to pin blame. It’s not all that fair to indict the quarterback for his poor play without also finding fault in the offensive line for not blocking, the receivers for not getting open and the running backs for not taking pressure off the passing game.
The quarterback shouldn’t/can’t/won’t throw the ball if the receiver isn’t open, and he can’t push the ball down the field if the route combination for the play called doesn’t require it. So whose fault is it? I’ll admit that I don’t know enough about the intricacies of football to comfortably decide all the time. I just watch the games, look at the stats and use the knowledge I have. What I do know – it takes all the position groups working cohesively to execute an offense effectively.
Either way, Tennessee’s passing offense was not very good last season -- that much we can all be sure of -- but I don’t think that’s because Guarantano was that bad. The Vols finished 10th in the SEC and 96th in the country averaging 196 passing yards per game last season, but they still managed the sixth-best yards per attempt figure in the conference. YPA is usually regarded as the best way to evaluate the efficiency of a team’s passing game, and Guarantano’s number was middle-of-the-pack for the SEC, despite the collective passing numbers being subpar.
Tennessee had the lowest total of passing yards and the fewest number of passing touchdowns of the teams inside the SEC’s top-10 for yards per attempt. Sure, some of that blame falls on Guarantano. But not all of it.
We all saw Guarantano almost literally running for his life behind an over-matched, patchwork offensive line. Brandon Kennedy’s early-season injury set the tone for the year: Tennessee used six different starting lineups in 12 games; only Ryan Johnson and Drew Richmond started all 12 games, and only Richmond started all season at just one position (right tackle). Tennessee gave up 23 sacks in 12 games, eighth-worst in the SEC, and the offensive line allowed plenty more hurries and hits that aren’t accounted for by traditional statistical references.
Guarantano didn’t make a lot of bad decisions that resulted in turnovers, even though he took more hits than the speed bag at your local boxing gym. Tennessee was tied for the seventh-best interception number in the country – throwing just five on the season -- but two of those came from backup Keller Chryst. Now, context is important, and Tennessee threw the 12th lowest number of passes in the country. Throwing the ball less means it is likely to get intercepted less, too.
Still, Guarantano had just three interceptions on 246 attempts, which means roughly 0.012 percent of his attempts were intercepted. I did the math for the rest of the SEC, and Guarantano’s number was the best in the conference. He was also reasonably accurate, ranking seventh in the SEC with a 62.2 completion percentage on his league-low number of attempts.
The offseason changes at Tennessee may benefit Guarantano more than anybody else on the team. The Vols signed five offensive linemen, including 5-stars Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris. If the recruiting services are right in their evaluations, then both should be talented enough to play, and perhaps start, at some point during the season. Morris has the added benefit of being an early enrollee, so he’s already settled in, adjusting to life on campus and participating in spring practice. We’ll talk more about those guys another day.
Jim Chaney’s addition brings a veteran play caller with SEC experience, two boxes former OC Helton didn’t check. During Chaney’s previous stay at Tennessee from 2009-2012, the Vols cumulatively averaged more than 28 points and nearly 260 passing yards per game, and in Chaney’s last season as offensive coordinator, Tyler Bray threw for more than 3,600 yards and 34 touchdowns in arguably the most prolific Tennessee offense of recent memory.
Last season there were several animated discussions on the sidelines -- times when Pruitt didn’t agree with Helton’s play calls. Those were likely the manifestation of a frustrating season exacerbated by the growing pains that come about naturally from one guy (Pruitt) doing a job he’d never done before and another guy (Helton) having only called plays once in his career. This season, I expect Pruitt to give Chaney room to operate the offense how Chaney prefers.
Pruitt will obviously still have plenty of input throughout the week with the game plan construction and on in-game strategical decisions, but the hiring of Chaney and Pruitt’s choice to bring in Derrick Ansley to call the defensive plays shows that he understands he’s got to trust the guys he’s hired. That’s one lesson it appears Pruitt learned last season — delegate more and micro-manage less.
No, Guarantano didn’t light the world on fire last season – he threw for less than 2,000 yards in 12 games – but he’s tough and will stand in the pocket to deliver a pass with the rush bearing down on him. He took a lot of big hits last season, but he always got back up. That’s valuable, and it’s not really something that can be taught. Some guys have it, and some guys don’t. You want your quarterback to have it.
Tennessee isn’t going to be a great football team in 2019. (Early front-runner for understatement of the year, right?) With an easier schedule, they should be better than 5-7, sure, but there’s a lot of space between “better than 5-7,” and “great.” The offense showed flashes of big-play potential last year with lots of down-field heaves to Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer, but it lacked a consistent identity and never really got the running game going.
I expect Guarantano to be beyond just serviceable and possibly even thrive in Jim Chaney’s offense. My expectations remain tempered, though, as this is now Guarantano’s fourth offensive coordinator in as many years. That doesn’t make anything easier.
Backup: JT Shrout OR Brian Maurer
Here’s where it gets interesting. For the first time in his Tennessee career, Jarrett Guarantano doesn’t have to look over his shoulder. He’s the guy — which leaves an interesting battle for the QB2 role behind him.
Keller Chryst has moved on and Tennessee didn’t pursue a grad-transfer. That leaves a redshirt freshman and a true freshman, both of whom we got our first look at during the Tennessee spring game.
Shrout is perhaps the natural favorite with a year of college experience under his belt during his redshirt season. However, did his advantage disappear when Tyson Helton left for Western Kentucky? Now true freshman Brian Maurer will be on equal footing with Shrout in terms of knowledge of Jim Chaney’s offense.
Both guys were rated as three-star prospects coming out of high school. While Maurer got off to the better start in the Orange and White game, he finished up his day by throwing two interceptions. Shrout wasn’t too impressive outside of his first deep ball to Tyler Byrd, finishing his day going 10-19 for 138 yards.
We will head into the fall giving the slight edge to Shrout, but this is a situation that could change throughout camp.