Tennessee football: The sweet redemption of Jarrett Guarantano
You could write a screenplay about the college career of Jarrett Guarantano. It has been filled with twists and turns, joy and heartache, physical and emotional pain.
And we might look back at Saturday night in Lexington as his finest hour.
He arrived in Knoxville as the top-rated dual-threat quarterback in the nation for the Class of 2016. After a redshirt season, he was expected to be the replacement for Joshua Dobbs in 2017. Instead, he started the season as the backup to Quinten Dormady. Still, Guarantano ended up playing in 7 games and starting 4 in what goes down as one of the worst in the 120+ year history of Tennessee football. The Vols finished 4-8, the first time UT lost as many as 8 games in a single season. In 2018 he led the Vols to upset victories over Auburn and Kentucky, but it was another lost season as Tennessee went 5-7.
The quarterback always gets too much credit for success and too much blame for shortcomings. During those 2 years not much went Tennessee’s way as a football program. But it was Guarantano’s limitations that were on display every week. He was supposed to be mobile but rarely used his feet to extend plays the way Dobbs did. His accuracy was questionable. He held onto the football way too long, which led to his taking massive beatings each week.
In short, Guarantano simply wasn’t living up to expectations. He had company, but Guarantano became the poster boy for all of Tennessee’s ills.
This season Guarantano’s struggles have been evident again. After a 1-3 start (which included an inexcusable opening loss loss to Georgia State), he lost his starting job. But with backups Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout either injured or ineffective, Guarantano has still seen action in all 10 contests.
Against Alabama, his decision to ignore the play call and attempt a quarterback sneak at the goal line led to a fumble and a 100-yard return for a score for the Crimson Tide. If social media and the message boards were any indication, Tennessee fans were done with Guarantano. They had seen this movie too many times. It certainly seemed as if Jeremy Pruitt might be done, too.
But then a funny thing happened. Jarrett Guarantano turned into Mariano Rivera.
Guarantano was now the closer, leading Tennessee to wins over South Carolina and UAB.
And then came the Kentucky game. For a half, the Vols offense couldn’t do very much against the Wildcats, accounting for a mere field goal. Pruitt decided to play Guarantano, and the Vols responded immediately. Guarantano led the Vols to 2 touchdowns, with scoring passes to Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer. With 1:09 left, the Vols were clinging to a 17-13 lead and facing 3rd-and-4 from their own 8. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney could have called for another run up the middle, hope to gain the 4 yards or have to turn the game over to a Tennessee defense that had been on the field for over 41 minutes.
Instead, Chaney called for a play-action pass. The Vols’ receivers were covered, so Guarantano took off, scrambled for 10 yards and a decisive 1st down, and that sealed the game for the Vols. Guarantano got up and signaled 1st down. Rarely had Chaney showed much confidence in Guarantano, but this time he did and it paid off.
The most telling thing to me was the reaction after the game. Guarantano was mobbed by his teammates. This was a scene you couldn’t have imagined after the Alabama game a few weeks ago. Remember, he’s been playing with a broken left hand suffered against South Carolina. This was a quarterback truly giving his all for Tennessee.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t believe in me,” Guarantano said after the game. “But as long as those guys in the locker room and my coaches do, that’s really all that matters.”
No, Guarantano isn’t Dobbs 2.0. But for this team, going 7-of-8 for 115 yards and a couple of scores might be enough. And with 1 more win in their final 2 games, it would be enough to make the Vols bowl eligible.
A feel good story about a much maligned player leading a former SEC power back to the postseason for the first time in 3 years?
I’d watch that movie.