On the Beat: Unraveling Tennessee’s surprising quarterback drama

Tennessee football-Vols quarterbacks

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It didn’t take long after Jarrett Guarantano was announced as the starting quarterback for some Tennessee fans to wonder: How much rope will Butch Jones give the redshirt freshman?

Does he get pulled if he is intercepted once? Twice? What if the team falls behind by 10 points? Two touchdowns?

Such is life on Rocky Top, where Vols fans are on edge about the future of the program once more with Jones possibly regressing in regular-season win total at a school for the first time in his 11 years as a head coach.

A quarterback change has served as a welcome distraction and provided hope Tennessee can change course after three consecutive subpar showings.

Jones announced Guarantano will start the noon game on Saturday against South Carolina (TV: ESPN) during his Wednesday news conference.

It was a curious move for Jones to make the announcement midweek. This is particularly true when one recalls how he handled naming a starter before the season opener against Georgia Tech.

Jones said Guarantano and junior Quinten Dormady would compete through warm-up drills right up until kickoff of the nationally televised showdown with the Yellow Jackets at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

So, how much leeway does Guarantano have? And why did Jones tell the Gamecocks which quarterback he is starting?

Jones’ coach speak sometimes confuses (and entertains) people. But, often, if you listen closely and read between the lines, there are underlying messages.

The answers to the questions, in order, are:

1. Guarantano will play until Jones thinks he needs to make a change at the position to beat South Carolina. One bold coaching move could lead to another at this point.

2. Jones surely weighed the advantage/disadvantage of disclosing the starter. The advantage of giving the team time to accept the decision and avoid locker-room animosity and drama must have outweighed the element of surprise, in his estimation.

The good

• Guarantano’s mobility should extend plays if Tennessee receivers continue to struggle to get open and create the potential for yardage off the scramble.

• Guarantano is much better at handling success than adversity — it’s all he had known through high school — so chances are he’ll perform better as a starter than coming off the bench.

• Dormady’s cool disposition and poise, along with being the son of a high school coach, means he’ll have the maturity needed to perform well if he’s called upon to come off the bench.

• Tennessee’s offensive package will shrink with Guarantano behind center, and the game plan will be simplified and geared more toward execution than versatility.

• The move to Guarantano puts more pressure on the offensive line to generate a push in the run game. The Vols were inferior to Florida and Georgia up front, but they should have the advantage against South Carolina.

• Jones said his move was based on Guarantano earning it, but you can bet the coach also thinks it is the better percentage play based on the matchup.

The bad

• It is Guarantano’s first career start, and though it’s in the friendly (?) confines of Neyland Stadium, there is no precedent how the New Jersey product will handle the pressure of what’s being deemed a must-win for the program.

• Tight end Jakob Johnson remains sidelined by an injury, and while that might not seem like a big deal, it is. Johnson is the de facto fullback, and he’s the best open-field blocker on the team.

• Evan Berry still is sidelined because of injury. If there is one player who can provide instant excitement and flip the momentum, it’s a dynamic kick-return man such as Berry.

• Tennessee’s defense is executing better, but it’s still short on tough, intimidating players. Defensive end Darrell Taylor is the alpha dog, and he is suspended for this game.

The unknowns

• Can Tennessee get its special teams on track? Punter Trevor Daniel has been the only reliable element since Berry went out with an injury. Young return men including Marquez Callaway and Ty Chandler must step up.

• How will the Vols respond to two weeks off since their humiliating 41-0 loss to Georgia? Has the ship sailed on Team 121, or will Tennessee respond with its back to the wall?

• Jones and Will Muschamp — no love lost between them — and that sort of thing trickles down with players sensing the contempt. South Carolina was chippy and pushed around the Vols last year. Will that happen again in Neyland Stadium?

The post On the Beat: Unraveling Tennessee’s surprising quarterback drama appeared first on SEC Country.

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