Mistakes at quarterback position haunting Tennessee

KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 17, 2020 - Quarterback Harrison Bailey #15 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

KNOXVILLE – Mistakes are part of football and nobody is perfect. But the fact of the matter is a fifth-year senior shouldn’t be making this many mistakes. This is where the Tennessee Volunteers find themselves.

Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano had a day to forget last Saturday as he had a fumble and threw two interceptions which were returned for touchdowns as the Volunteers were defeated by Kentucky 34-7. One pick-6 in a game is bad enough but two is unheard of. In a career marked by inconsistency, Guarantano is unfortunately making a habit of being consistent in making more bad decisions than good ones. On the first pick, Kelvin Jones stepped in front of Guarantano’s pass at the 41, caught it and raced the other way for the score to put the Wildcats ahead. The second interception-which came on the very next drive- was even worse as Jamin Davis, who is a linebacker, intercepted a pass and there was no stopping him until he was in the end zone 85 yards later for the score. Fourteen Wildcat points in 2:14.

When a starting pitcher is getting shelled in baseball or a starting goalie gives up multiple goals early on in hockey, they are replaced to see if someone else can stop the bleeding. The UT coaching staff decided to see if redshirt sophomore J.T. Shrout could do any better as he was inserted into the game on the next Tennessee possession. On the third play of the drive, Shrout was picked off by Tyrell Ajian at the Tennessee 37-yard line. The good news for the Vols was the Kentucky safety didn’t take that one to the house for yet another score. That was a small victory for UT with the way the second quarter was going on Saturday.

Guarantano has had several head-scratching plays over his career which included a famous fumble at the goal line against Alabama a few years ago. There is a “good JG vs. bad JG” scenario that has seemed to envelop the New Jersey native as he can look absolutely terrific one minute and astonishingly terrible the next. An example of the good was in the first half against Georgia when he threw two perfect passes to Josh Palmer for touchdown grabs of 36 and 27 yards but the bad showed up in the first half of the Kentucky game with the two interceptions that turned in Wildcat scores. These are the kinds of plays one would expect out of a freshman or maybe a sophomore, not a player who has been in the program for five seasons.

The Vols look to be short on options at quarterback, however. Shrout was replaced after the interception by Guarantano again but things didn’t get seem to get any better. Brian Maurer hasn’t seen any game action as he has battled injuries all season and even back to the preseason. Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt assessed where his team is right now when it comes to the signal-callers. “First of all, Brian missed most of fall camp. He had a hamstring and he was in quarantine, so he didn’t get many reps there and that put him behind and he understands that and he’s trying to catch up. I feel like J.T. has continued to work hard. There’s just a few plays out there – and you saw one today. It’s 2nd-and-25, and first of all he didn’t send the guy in motion that he should’ve sent, and then he just makes a very poor decision. He just needs to take the check down or throw the ball away. Anything but throw the ball to the other team. 2nd-and-25 is not a very good situation to be in. If we want to continue to improve at that position, we have to keep coming to work and work a little harder and raise our level of preparation. Hopefully, these guys will work hard to continue to do that.”

Guarantano’s performance is unfortunate as he is an articulate, intelligent, engaging young man. He has already completed his undergraduate degree and is currently in graduate school and is the kind of player who is easy to cheer for from a personality standpoint. But the mistakes he is making is just something that can’t be overlooked and needs to change. When asked who would be the Volunteers’ quarterback going forward, Pruitt was non-committal. ““I would say it’s undecided. Right now, when you lose 34-7, I think everybody in our organization has got to look and see what went wrong. We could make changes at any level.” When there is a lack of confidence in a team’s quarterback, it sure does shorten the play sheet and that is exactly where Tennessee finds itself right now.

O woe is the offense

Tennessee’s offense has produced seven points in the last six quarters in games against Georgia and Kentucky. The offensive line played better against the Wildcats than it did against the Bulldogs as Eric Gray was able to go over 100 yards in rushing but senior o-line leader Trey Smith said there was still work to do. “We have to go back to work. This is a very unforgiving game and it isn’t based on sympathy at all. You have to go to work and we have to correct what we did wrong. We have to quit being okay with being average in a lot of aspects that we do and we have to do a lot of extra work this week. It’s obvious we have to correct the things we need to correct and we have to work hard as well.”

Speaking of Gray

The sophomore running back had a good day against the Wildcats when the rest of the team struggled as he carried the ball 24 times for 128 yards. At one point on Tennessee’s lone scoring drive, he hauled the ball nine times in a row when it was obvious the Vols were done with the passing game. “That was a big testament to the O-line,” Gray said of his ability to get free for some rushing yards when UT needed them the most. “They came out and blocked well. We pretty much ran the same play over, and we just felt like we had them. They were getting tired. We wanted to go fast, and we just kept going, kept going, kept driving. That was the drive we needed to put the ball in the end zone.”

A sign of things to come?

The coaching staff decided to put much-heralded quarterback Harrison Bailey into the game and he had a picture perfect pass to Malachi Wideman for 24 yards but finished the day 1-for-4 in passing. ““There was an opportunity to put him in the game. He hasn’t had a lot of reps, as far as the game plan versus Kentucky, but it was a good chance to get him out there and let him and some of these other guys get some reps. I think that’s good. That’s good for him. He made one nice throw there and he’ll make better throws and he’ll do a lot more stuff as time goes on. He’s a hard worker and everybody in our quarterback room has got to work hard,” Pruitt said of Bailey.

Who is that masked man?

A report came out on Saturday that Tennessee was one of several teams who was going to be fined by the SEC for not following proper COVID-19 procedures when it came to mask wearing. Pruitt had an interesting way of wearing his neck gaiter in the Georgia game which lit up Twitter with several memes. On Saturday, Pruitt instead went with a more traditional mask. “I can tell you that I wore my mask wrong,” Pruitt said. “(Today,) I wore it the right way. I’ve tried to be a good leader in our organization and do things the way it’s supposed to be done. During that game (versus Georgia), I had problems communicating and I pulled my mask down and didn’t realize it until the game was over with. Obviously, it’s not something that I wanted to do and that’s not how I’ve been practicing wearing my mask. I’ve been doing it the right way and felt like I needed to find something that didn’t limit my communication skills during the game. I went with this other mask and it seemed to work a lot better. We’ll probably stick with it.”

A Tide of trouble

Tennessee loss to Kentucky at home for the first time since Ronald Reagan was in the White House and they haven’t beaten their next opponent since what seems like the Lincoln administration. Second-ranked Alabama rolls into Knoxville on Saturday holding a 13-game winning streak against the Vols. Tennessee’s last win in the series was in 2006 when they defeated the Tide 16-13. During the streak, the games haven’t been close except in 2009 (12-10) and 2015 (19-14). Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. at Neyland Stadium.