Tennessee appears to have an incredibly difficult decision to make heading into fall camp. Which quarterback gives the Volunteers the best chance to win in the season opener against West Virginia on a neutral field in Charlotte?
Knowing which quarterback truly fits the system best would be a good starting point, but Tennessee has yet to play a game in Tyson Helton’s system and it’s unclear how much planning and play calling the former USC co-offensive coordinator actually had his hands in last season for the Trojans. Athlon Sports has gone out on a limb and projected Keller Chryst to be Tennessee’s starting quarterback and that makes sense given the fact that he’s using his final season of eligibility to play for the Vols. Graduate transfer quarterbacks don’t make their decisions with the intention of serving as a backup.
But just because Chryst came to Knoxville to play doesn’t mean Jarrett Guarantano is going to cede the position without a fight. Guarantano looks to have the better arm and he has an edge in experience in two facets; he had entire spring camp to work in Helton’s system and he has two full years of rapport and relationship building with many of the players. Having only played one season of college football, Guarantano was thrown into a tough spot last season but appeared to progress both on the field and in overall leadership within the program. Experiencing a tumultuous season like that has ruined some quarterbacks; Guarantano not only survived it, he appeared to progress in the end.
Which quarterback wins the job at Tennessee this fall? After studying nearly every play of their college careers (viewed every play from the games they started), here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons of each signal caller.
Keller Chryst: The Good
1. Downfield throws
Chryst’s best attribute is his ability to make downfield throws from a clean pocket. Here’s an example of that at Oregon. To this day, the loudest stadium I’ve experienced from the field level is Autzen Stadium — which shocked me considering the capacity of the venue (54,000) but the design of the stadium gives the Ducks a deafening homefield advantage when the Oregon fans are into the game.
Despite Chryst feeling the wrath of the Oregon fans, something the announcer references in the clip below, the former Stanford quarterback dropped a dime — during an obvious passing situation (3rd-and-13) no less. He delivered the ball in a perfect location 40 yards downfield to a receiver in stride. That’s not something we’ve consistently seen from any of the quarterbacks on Tennessee’s roster.
2. Accuracy on the run
For any Tennessee fans believing Chryst is a statuesque figure in the pocket, think again. He showcased time and again his athletic ability and mobility for Stanford.
In the clip below, from the same 2016 Stanford-Oregon game, the Cardinal ran a play-action pass that the Ducks’ front seven honored but still got a rusher in Chryst’s face. Chryst evaded a sack and delivered another dime over the top of two defenders, placing the ball where only his receiver could catch it. The throw is even more impressive when you realize he threw the ball off balance and while jumping.
Plus, he does all this with the knowledge he could get hit. Chryst did indeed take a shot, to his left knee which was sporting a brace. The hit drew a the penalty flag for roughing the passer.
3. Ability to punish the defense with his legs
Considering his 6-5, 235-pound frame, you might not be able to tell by looking at him but Chryst can be used as a weapon in the run game. Rice found out the hard way when he rumbled for a 62-yard touchdown on a 3rd-and-10 play. He showed off some fancy footwork here as well, tiptoeing down the sideline to remain in bounds and finishing strong with some power near the end of the play, as he makes a Rice defensive back look like a large gnat that’s flown into his path toward the end zone.
Chryst made a similar play against Oregon State in 2016, rushing for 44 yards on this play when the Beavers got locked into man-to-man coverage and had their back to the offense. Chryst took advantage of that and at the same time showed some power to stay on his feet and gain extra yardage. Had he not been pushed out of bounds, he likely would have scored.
Jarrett Guarantano: The Good
1. Arm talent
When the previous Tennessee coaching staff gave Guarantano the green light to fire the pigskin downfield, which wasn’t nearly often enough, he impressed with his arm talent. The final drive of the South Carolina game, which was his first career start no less, was largely impressive. Had the outcome of the drive been different, it might have been the stuff of Tennessee legend. Unfortunately for Vol fans, that’s not what happened, but the team would not have been in a position to even win the game had the redshirt freshman not led the offense down the field with several nice throws.
Had I taken the hit Guarantano did in the immediate play below, not only would my survival have been doubtful but I would have probably never touched a football again. To his credit, this play is about much more than Guarantano’s ability to take a hit but his willingness to fight for extra yards when his team desperately needed it on the road and down early facing another potential stop on 3rd-and-14. While he didn’t get the first down, he sacrificed his body in his attempt to do so. Obviously, you don’t want your quarterback doing that often, but that type of effort is what gets the rest of the team — not just the offense — to rally behind a quarterback. (The play can be viewed on YouTube at the 41:41 mark)
3. Touch/chemistry with Marquez Callaway
For all the hype that Jauan Jennings’ potential return is receiving on Rocky Top, based on the glimpses we’ve seen from Marquez Callaway when he’s actually given an opportunity to shine, Tennessee’s true No. 1 receiver could very well be the man wearing No. 9. It was Callaway and John Kelly who took over the Georgia Tech game last season and with J.K. now in the NFL, the Vols would be wise to run the passing game through No. 9.
After Guarantano was inserted into the starting lineup, Callaway quickly emerged as his favorite target. If Guarantano does win the starting job, the passing offense will be best-suited to be run through Callaway first and foremost with Jennings serving as a potential second option. The two appear to have a good rapport on the field and that’s something the gap between the fall and the spring certainly didn’t diminish.
Watch these two pass plays as evidence of that.
The first play is from the 2017 Vanderbilt game and features a perfect touch pass from Guarantano and an amazing reception from Callaway. The second, from Tennessee’s 2018 spring game, features a similar play in which a defensive player jumps offsides and gives the offense a free play. Take note that the while the slot receiver and several offensive linemen don’t move after seeing the defender jump offside, Guarantano and Callaway immediately recognize what they have — an opportunity at a free shot that they take without hesitation. Guarantano gives Callaway a chance to make the play with a 50/50 ball and the offense comes away with a touchdown.
Keller Chryst: The Bad
1.Poor decisions/Throwing into coverage
Arguably the worst performance of his career came last season as Chryst completed only 9 passes for 58 yards against San Diego State and he was picked off twice. He was fortunate that he didn’t throw a few more, as he made several bad decisions and appeared to be rattled playing behind the inexperienced Stanford line. That’s something he’s going to have to do in Knoxville if he’s the starting quarterback and the Vols likely won’t have any chance of winning in conference play if Chryst turns the ball over multiple times in a game.
This particular play sticks out as Stanford was hoping to gain some momentum before halftime. Instead, Chryst threw into quadruple coverage on 3rd-and-12 and was intercepted. The play resulted in a San Diego State short touchdown drive just before the half. Considering SDSU upset Stanford 20-17, this was a huge factor.
2. Awareness/Ball security
On the ensuing drive, Stanford was aided by multiple unsportsmanlike penalties against SDSU. Those penalties put Stanford in position to score before halftime and regain some momentum, but that didn’t happen thanks to Chryst losing the ball on a strip sack. Heading into the play, Stanford did not have any timeouts, and with the clock under 30 seconds, he has to have a better awareness of the situation. A sack likely ends a potential scoring drive, even if the strip sack does not occur. He misses a wide open receiver 12 yards in front of him and holds the ball for too long, which results in consecutive drives ending in back-to-back turnovers.
3. Ineffective without help from elite running back
Against an Oregon State team that finished 1-11 (the lone win came in a 35-32 game against Portland State), Chryst delivered the performance that led to his benching and eventual transfer. Stanford was ranked No. 20 heading into this game yet nearly lost due to his performance. He finished 16-of-33 passes and a single touchdown. He also tossed an interception and could have thrown at least two, if not three more against a defense that ranked 127 out of 130 in S&P+ defensive rankings.
Chryst was 7-for-16 for 82 yards in first the half against Oregon State in a game Stanford managed to score a grand total of 15 points. If he performs like this against an SEC opponent, Tennessee has no chance to win. Stanford’s running back Bryce Love did not play due to injury and Chryst failed to carry the offense in a meaningful way against the worst team the Pac-12 had to offer last season.
Once Chryst made news of his transfer to Tennessee official, his 11-2 record as a starting college quarterback was something often discussed by Vol Nation. What many failed to mention was the fact Chryst had a massive assist in racking up that impressive record from Christian McCaffrey, one of the best running backs in modern college football history and Love, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2017.
These three plays from Chryst stood out as particularly bad from the game:
Fair or not, this performance is the final indication we have of what Chryst is capable of doing on the field. If he has not progressed from this point, he’s unlikely to see the field for Tennessee in 2018.
Jarrett Guarantano: The Bad
1. Lack of awareness/Poor decision
In a game that had yet to feature a touchdown, and first downs via anything other than penalties were excruciatingly difficult to come by, losing nearly 10 yards for no reason was an incomprehensible mistake by Guarantano against South Carolina in his first career start. Considering he was well out of the pocket, he could have thrown the ball away. Instead, he was run out of bounds on 2nd-and-goal and made it virtually impossible for Tennessee score a touchdown on the drive.
2. Body language
Guarantano might have been physically ready to play in place of Quinten Dormady when the 2017 season began, but his body language suggested he wasn’t ready to handle the rigors of the season. While he seemed to gain much of that by season’s end, it was Guarantano and Trey Smith who publicly stated a change of culture and leadership was necessary heading into 2018. Saying that is one thing while doing it is another thing entirely.
While many assumeGuarantano will leave immediately if he doesn’t win the job, if he does stay, how he reacts to potentially losing the starting competition to Chryst but being asked to play as a reserve will be telling. Or, before it even gets to that point, what happens if he has a bad performance or two in fall camp while Chryst has better showings? How he responds to those inevitable challenges would be the biggest roadblock to the field in the upcoming season.
Closing thoughts on the competition
While reviewing the relatively brief history of these two quarterbacks as starters, I did find two plays that I thought would be particularly useful for this article. While the situations, personnel (on both sides of the ball) and play calls cannot be perfectly matched, I don’t believe these two plays are completely incomparable, either.
The first is a play many Tennessee fans might not enjoy revisiting — the final snap from last season’s South Carolina game. With one second remaining and down by six points, Tennessee had one final opportunity to win. Guarantano rolled right and threw a catchable ball to receiver Brandon Johnson that was ultimately an incompletion. Had UT been playing horseshoes or hand grenades, they would have gotten some points, but not here.
In an eerily similar play in the 2016 Stanford-Oregon game, the Cardinal ran a near identical play against similar coverage (although in all fairness South Carolina’s defensive backs played the ball much better) and Chryst successfully converted the play into a touchdown.
Here’s a video of the play when Stanford ran it:
The announcer even remarked live during the broadcast, the Stanford offense made it “too easy” to score. That’s how an offense led by an efficient quarterback is supposed to look when it performs. Whichever quarterback convinces Tyson Helton he can do that better exiting fall camp will be taking the field first for the Volunteers in Charlotte come Sept. 1.