Why now is the perfect time for Tennessee to be all in with Brian Maurer ... and not a 'sixth man'
The time has come. Tennessee fans know it.
The question is, does Jeremy Pruitt know it?
Everyone with a pair of eyeballs and a pulse could have watched Saturday night and seen that yes, the Brian Maurer era is here. At least it should be.
If there were ever a time for players, a coaching staff and a fan base to get behind a true freshman quarterback, now is it. That means letting Maurer succeed and fail with every snap possible, and not using Jarrett Guarantano as a “sixth man” like he was Saturday against Georgia.
When Pruitt went on “SEC Nation” ahead of Saturday’s game and announced that’s what Guarantano’s role would be, you could hear the collective groan across Knoxville.
“Well, I want to start with Jarrett Guarantano. First of all, this guy is a guy that I believe in,” Pruitt said during his appearance on the show before Saturday’s game. “He had a really good spring, fall camp — along with a lot of the players on our team. We’ve not executed exactly at the level that we want to be at. To me, I look at it kind of like a basketball shooter. You got a hot shooter that’s not making shots, you put him on the bench and let him be the sixth man. Jarrett Guarantano’s going to play today.
“But Brian Maurer is a guy that has worked hard. He’s a really good athlete, so we’re going to give him an opportunity to see what he does to start the game.”
I get it. Pruitt is trying to do right by someone who has said and done all the right things in his program. Few have endured as much as Guarantano. As a result, Pruitt will likely continue to speak optimistically about Guarantano’s involvement.
To publicly say, “yeah, we’re chucking Jarrett out the window like a bag of trash on a cross-country road trip” wouldn’t be the best look. Had Maurer just been completely overwhelmed in his first start and Guarantano was mentally checked out, that could have been a recipe for complete disaster.
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Maurer, however, was ready to roll from the jump against the No. 3-ranked team in the country. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it’s been a hot minute since Neyland Stadium got this kind of loud:
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) October 6, 2019
In one play, you saw Maurer show major veteran skills. He sidestepped the pass rusher while keeping his eyes downfield and fired a perfect, in-stride dart to Marquez Callaway. If you had a nickel for every Tennessee fan claiming that was more impressive than any play from Jarrett Guarantano in recent memory, you would have had some deep pockets.
And yes, Maurer getting steamrolled by Eric Stokes on Georgia’s late scoop-and-score was a reminder that those moments are still going to happen, especially against an elite defense.
But it would be foolish for Pruitt to have anything that resembles a 2-quarterback system. Giving Maurer the freedom to make mistakes at this stage of his career is incredibly important. Having him wondering when the “sixth man” is going to come in doesn’t bode well for a quarterback trying to develop a rapport with his receivers, and it takes valuable reps away from him with Jim Chaney.
That’s the other thing that needs to be taken into account. Chaney is in the first of a 3-year deal that’ll pay him $4.8 million. In other words, he ain’t going anywhere no matter how bad this season goes (neither is Pruitt, according to Paul Finebaum). Might as well let your high-priced offensive coordinator work with the quarterback of the future instead of trying to make it work with Guarantano.
What more do we need to see from Guarantano to be convinced he’s not it? Or rather, what more does Pruitt need to see?
He regressed in just about every way (making throws under pressure, efficiency, etc.). Oh, and that was before the Georgia game. When Pruitt put in his “sixth man,” he wasn’t good. A 1-for-5 clip for 14 yards doesn’t scream “put me in, coach!”
Yet when Pruitt was asked Saturday night about whether Maurer did enough to win the starting job the following week, he was non-committal. Again.
“I’ll have to watch the film, I don’t know. I thought (Maurer) competed really hard. (Guarantano) did a nice job when he was in there,” Pruitt said. “It was good for both of them. It was good for our football team moving forward.”
You know what Guarantano did a nice job with? Supporting Maurer. Watching the veteran rush out to help out Maurer after he was pummeled on the Stokes hit was a reminder of why Guarantano has so much respect in that locker room. The dude leads, and he deserves a lot of praise for that. He’s come a long way from the guy who was pouting on the sidelines because he didn’t start in the 2017 opener against Georgia Tech.
That’s all the more reason to let him hold a clipboard and be the eyes and ears for Maurer as he transitions into his new role.
Pruitt doesn’t have to worry about Guarantano going anywhere, either. His redshirt is off the table and seems like an obvious candidate for a graduate transfer route at season’s end.
So what does Pruitt have to lose? Nothing, in my opinion. Tennessee isn’t going to a bowl game this year. I say that because the Vols are 1-5. I don’t care if the standings say that they’re 1-4. That Alabama game is already a loss.
That Alabama game is at the end of this brutal 4-game stretch to start conference play. It might be a natural assumption that a true freshman quarterback shouldn’t get thrown into the fire and that it’d be nice to get his confidence up with some favorable matchups.
That thinking doesn’t apply to Tennessee in 2019. And if we’re being honest, why would it apply to any SEC school? What’s the use in hiding a player from elite teams? It’s the SEC. They’re coming whether you like it or not.
I give Pruitt credit for at least giving Maurer his first start against that Georgia defense.
I’ll give him even more credit if he stops treating his quarterback situation like a basketball team.