Jeremy Pruitt's task is obvious: Recruit and develop a QB better than Jarrett Guarantano
Help wanted: A quarterback who will throw the football to the right team. Send applications to Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt.
Quarterback woes have hamstrung Tennessee all too frequently since Joshua Dobbs departed after the 2016 season, and they came to a head Saturday, when Tennessee quarterbacks combined for four turnovers in a 34-7 loss to Kentucky.
Jarrett Guarantano lost a fumble that was forced by his teammate Ty Chandler, in bizarre fashion, and threw a pair of interceptions, both of which were returned for touchdowns.
Backup J.T. Shrout threw an interception on his only pass attempt.
For the second straight game, Tennessee’s starting quarterback got outplayed by an opposing quarterback who has limited ability to stretch the field.
Pruitt’s task is clear: He must recruit and develop a quarterback who will elevate the production at the game's most important position.
Perhaps he'll find an answer in Harrison Bailey, a freshman who signed as a four-star recruit and debuted in the fourth quarter Saturday.
If not, then Tennessee’s quarterback recruiting efforts must pay off more than they did in Pruitt’s first two signing classes, when he inked three-star prospects Shrout and Brian Maurer. That duo has been unable to unseat Guarantano despite the veteran’s inconsistent performance.
Pruitt didn’t sound like a coach at his wit’s end when assessing his quarterback play after Saturday’s debacle. He didn’t vow to make a change, stating only that “it’s undecided.”
“When you lose (34-7), I think that everybody within our organization has got to look and see what went wrong,” Pruitt said. “We could make changes at any level.”
Added running back Eric Gray: “My thing with Jarrett is, you got to keep playing. Things like that happen. You’re not the first quarterback to do it. You won’t be the last. You just got to keep playing, keep going hard, keep working. Tomorrow, get back at it, all the way to the next game.”
Pruitt spared Guarantano from much of the blame. He said the fumble wasn’t Guarantano’s fault. Guarantano was trying to throw a quick pass to a receiver when Chandler ran forward on the run-pass option play and knocked the ball out of his quarterback’s hand.
Pruitt said he didn’t like the play call on Guarantano’s first interception, when he targeted Cedric Tillman on a sideline out-route on third-and-4. Kelvin Joseph darted in front of Tillman for an interception that he returned for a touchdown.
“That’s a bad throw, and I think it’s a bad call, throwing a 54-yard out for 4 yards,” Pruitt said. “What’s the risk vs. the reward there? Again, that goes back to me, from an organization standpoint, making sure that we’re doing the things that I want done in that down and distance.”
On Guarantano’s second interception, he threw downfield for Jalin Hyatt and didn’t see Jamin Davis sitting in zone coverage. Pruitt said Guarantano should have thrown to his check-down receiver and instead “got greedy.”
Pruitt expressed frustration with the offense’s inability to stop those two interceptions from being returned for touchdowns, and he’s not satisfied with the defense’s performance.
“We got to be more dominating up front,” he said. “We got to improve playing man-to-man (coverage). We got to be better at knocking back tackles. We got to be more of a ball-hawking defense.”
Guarantano is the quarterback with endless chances. Just when you think he’s finished, he bounces back the next game.
Pruitt tried Maurer and Shrout last season, but neither proved a better option, and Guarantano regained the job.
In the short term, Guarantano probably remains the favorite to be the starter. But, the big-picture issue is this: Pruitt must recruit and develop better quarterbacks, so he doesn’t have to keep going back to Guarantano after games like Saturday.
Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.