Tennessee football: Vols' problems on offense go far beyond the quarterback. But there's 1 way to fix it
Evaluating Jarrett Guarantano is like judging a figure-skating competition blindfolded.
Let’s look at the final scores. They’re not good. Guarantano has the eighth-best passer rating in the SEC. He has hovered around that position for two weeks. The level of competition hasn’t really changed his standing among his SEC peers. Statistically, he’s been consistently average.
Be it UTEP or Florida, Guarantano has provided the explosion of a sparkler. His 179.5 yards per game ranks 12th-best in the SEC. Guarantano has only 2 passing touchdowns in 4 games, which included two lackluster opponents: UTEP and ETSU.
Guarantano also hasn’t done much on the ground despite being rated as the top dual-threat quarterback when he signed with UT in 2016. With 14 rushing attempts, Guarantano has lost 6 yards this season. That’s not a great scorecard. Is it all Guarantano’s fault? Of course not. That lack of production has to be blamed on a variety of circumstances.
Let’s start with a completely new offense that is headed up by UT offensive coordinator Tyson Helton.
UT fans rejoiced when the Vols poached coaches from big-time programs, like Helton, who left Southern California to join the Vols. But what do we really know about Helton’s track record at USC? He was a co-coordinator with former UT quarterback Tee Martin. Helton’s boss was his brother, USC head coach Clay Helton. How often did Tyson assemble a game plan or call plays as the lead offensive coach?
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Guarantano also has one of the worst offensive lines in the SEC.
The Vols simply can’t protect Guarantano or run the ball effectively enough to keep any respectable defense off balance. UT’s offensive line is young and not suited to fit Helton’s style, whatever that might be. UT’s offensive linemen were recruited to play in a spread offense. Under first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt, the Vols seem more intent on running the football with mass and power as opposed to deception.
It’s hard for me to blame Guarantano.
First, he wouldn’t still be at UT if he weren’t tough. He’s endured a ton of hard hits — on the field and off. Each time, Guarantano has gotten up. That’s why he’s UT’s starting quarterback and there’s no reason to think he wasn’t the right choice over Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst. In truth, there was no Heisman finalist just hanging around during the offseason.
It’s time for the Vols to play to their strengths — and that might be singular, as in the Vols only have one, single strength. It’s hard to find many bright spots on this roster, but the receiving corp is one. A trio of Marquez Callaway, Jauan Jennings and Josh Palmer would be tough for most defensive backfields to defend. That might not include secondaries like Alabama, but other teams could be vulnerable to those three.
It’s time for the Vols to try to stretch defenses early and often. However, that means protecting Guarantano.
I know the Vols would like five players running passing routes, but it just doesn’t seem this team can handle that. It’s time to protect Guarantano with an extra blocker or two and see if he can scare teams with his arm when given time. I’m not suggesting the Vols go high tempo or spread the field with five receivers.
Think vertical, not horizontal. That would affect how many defenders opponents can place close to the line of scrimmage.
Guarantano and the Vols could fall flat on their face with that approach. They might just be that bad, but what is there to lose?
Guarantano is just a sophomore. Chryst will be gone after this season. Freshman J.T. Shrout has garnered some strong reviews, but could he actually overcome Guarantano next season to be named the starter? Not likely. While it has happened at Alabama and Clemson, that’s not the norm.
Protecting Guarantano while being aggressive downfield could do a few things. First, it could help UT’s offense. That would be good. Second, it would let Tennessee’s coaches know what they have to deal with in the next two years. Lastly, it could make one of those highly-touted quarterback prospects look at the Vols a bit differently.