Last year, Tennessee had one of the worst passing offenses in the country — No. 109 nationally and No. 13 in the SEC.
With Quinten Dormady, Jarrett Guarantano and Will McBride all taking turns behind center, the Vols averaged a paltry 6.5 yards per attempt and finished the 2017 season with 11 touchdowns to 10 interceptions and a completion percentage hovering south of 57 percent.
Jeremy Pruitt knows that production must change in 2018 if Tennessee wants to get back on the winning ledger.
“You can’t win in this league without a quarterback,” he said last week.
“I’ve been as brutally honest as I can. I don’t know what we have at any position.”
At quarterback, Pruitt doesn't have a ton of options this spring.
New OC Tyson Helton has been tasked with orchestrating an offensive turnaround for the Vols, but Dormady is now gone, leaving just Guarantano and McBride to compete for snaps this spring.
It’s huge opportunity for both signal-callers, but mainly Guarantano.
The former 4-star recruit could use a fresh start, and the toolsy New Jersey quarterback will have 15 practices to prove he’s the man for the job before grad transfer Keller Chryst arrives on campus in the summer.
Pruitt specifically noted that Chryst, who has 13 career starts at Stanford, was given no assurances aside from an open competition.
But could Guarantano secure the job before Chryst even gets to Tennessee?
Guarantano has the skills to be a solid quarterback in the SEC. He’s long been labeled as Tennessee’s quarterback of the future due to his combination of mobility and arm talent. Pruitt himself said Guarantano is “tough as a nails” and confidence has never been an issue either, as it was exactly a year ago he declared that Tennessee would “soon be SEC Champions.”
Guarantano's initiation into the SEC was a real baptism by fire, though. After a calamitous quarterback competition — where both Dormady and Guarantano had been given some sort of promises about the job — Guarantano sulked through Tennessee’s season-opening win over Georgia Tech and then struggled in spot duty against UMass and Georgia.
Unfairly, Butch Jones then tried to save his job by turning the keys to the offense over to Guarantano after the bye week, but playing behind a shoddy offensive line, a skill group bereft of playmakers and play-calling that did him little favors, the redshirt freshman went 1-5 as a starter and averaged just 7.2 yards per attempt.
But all that's in the past now. With a new staff on campus, Guarantano has the chance to prove he's developed — as a passer and as a leader.
Helton doesn’t have a lengthy coaching resume yet, but he has done well working with Brandon Doughty, a standout at Western Kentucky, and Sam Darnold, potentially a Top-5 pick this April, and he'll need to iron out Guarantano's mechanics, indecisiveness and tendency to hold to the ball too long.
There’s an argument to be made that Tennessee’s transition to a pro-style offense could actually help Guarantano’s game, too. The Vols tinkered with more pro-style elements in 2017, especially late in the season, and considering Guarantano is not a natural runner like Josh Dobbs or McBride, the offensive change could actually emphasize his strengths as an athletic quarterback in a play-action system.
Chryst is coming to Tennessee to compete for the starting job, but over the next month, Guarantano has the chance to showcase his ceiling — which is much higher than Chryst’s — and get a leg-up on the competition.
If he can earn the staff’s trust this spring, there may be no quarterback controversy when the team reconvenes in August.