KNOXVILLE — Will McBride, welcome to the bizarrely intriguing saga that is Tennessee football in 2017.

Redshirt be darned, McBride — a 19-year-old true freshman — entered Saturday’s 24-10 victory over Southern Miss in the second quarter, stunning television broadcasters and others.

At halftime, it appeared embattled fifth-year coach Butch Jones had burned a year of McBride’s eligibility for the sake of three plays. Starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano returned to the game after exiting at the 5:57 mark of the second quarter with an apparent leg injury.

But when the second half started, Guarantano was out and McBride was in.

If there’s a reason other than injury, it’s not obvious.

Guarantano — a 19-year-old freshman who has had the benefit of a redshirt season — took over the starting job three weeks ago from junior Quinten Dormady.

Saturday, in his fourth start, Guarantano seemed to be finding some rhythm:

  • He led the Vols 49 yards on a nine-play opening drive, capping it with a 3-yard touchdown run.
  • He went 9-of-13 for 102 yards.
  • Though the Vols led only 10-3 at halftime, they seemed to be on their way to ending a four-game skid.

Afterward, Jones told The Associated Press that Guarantano could have returned at the end of the game and seemed to indicate that he probably will start next week at Missouri. “We expect him to be ready to go,” Jones told the AP.

Jones was adamant last week that McBride, as the No. 2 quarterback, would play if needed — even for only one snap in the hypothetical situation in which Guarantano must sit out a play because his helmet comes off.

“As we all know, as the No. 2 quarterback, you’re always one snap away,” Jones said. “I think that’s a great challenge in and of itself, because you have to prepare yourself before every series, from your warmup to making sure you’re ready, to the sideline, to just the whole mentality of your preparation. And I think Will’s done a good job with that.

“Right now, I think every rep that Jarrett gains is invaluable for this season and the future of the program, so again, Will’s going to be one snap away and he’ll be ready like he has been and like he was last week.”

McBride’s numbers Saturday weren’t pretty — 1-of-8 for 13 yards. Tennessee won despite only 210 total yards by protecting the ball (no turnovers) and limiting penalties (3 for 29 yards while Southern Miss had 14 for 120).

The quarterback position for Tennessee is thin with Dormady out for the season with a shoulder injury and Sheriron Jones long gone after transferring from the program for the second time in June.

McBride is the next man up and “has been ready to go for a number of weeks now,” Jones said. “Where we’re at, we have a lot of confidence in him.

“Really, since August training camp we have seen it. Again, we have tried to throw him into some very challenging situations in practice, and he is very steady, very poised, very calm. That’s what we saw tonight. You look at the situation he was put into, that’s a challenging situation. There was no panic. (He was) very calm, very poised.”

Credit: Dan Harralson, Saturday Down South

Senior tight end Ethan Wolf, who caught two passes for 20 yards, said McBride can handle the stage.

“He has ice in his veins,” Wolf said.

“We have been able to see him make plays since the spring,” added John Kelly, whose two third-quarter rushing touchdowns put the game away. “It was good to hear his voice once he got in the game action. He’s a good kid and he is like a sponge soaking up all of the information. He is a great teammate.”

Tennessee (4-5) needs two wins in three games (at Missouri, vs. LSU, vs. Vanderbilt) to become bowl eligible. The extent of McBride’s role in that quest is uncertain. At the least, the 3-star recruit from League City, Texas, is now clearly established as the next man up.