KNOXVILLE – Tennessee’s quarterback saga has come full circle to coincide with the conclusion of the regular season.
The Vols (6-5, 5-3) host Vanderbilt (3-8, 1-6) on Saturday at Neyland Stadium (TV: SEC Network, 4 p.m.) with Jarrett Guarantano back in the starting role that he lost after the season’s fourth football game, against Florida on Sept. 21.
Following six games as a reliever, the redshirt junior took the opening snap at Missouri last Saturday.
After an iffy beginning, he threw for a career-best 415 yards and two touchdowns in the 24-20 victory and was in tears afterward.
In his first four games, Guarantano averaged 184 yards passing per game with seven touchdown passes and four interceptions. In his last four, he’s thrown the same number of TD passes but upped his per-game passing yardage to nearly 227 and cut his interceptions to one.
“I never lost confidence in him,” UT coach Jeremy Pruitt said this week. “When you play sports, sometimes you play at a really high level and sometimes you don’t. For everybody you’re always trying to figure out how do you be at your best.
“The talent has always been there, the want-to, the toughness, the instincts as a player, the ability to throw the football. But for whatever reason early in the season he wasn’t at his best and he knows that.”
Pruitt credited Guarantano for staying the course while Brian Maurer, J.T. Shrout and even Jauan Jennings took their turns as starters. Guarantano also persevered after suffering a broken bone in his left (non-throwing) hand against South Carolina on Oct. 26.
“He could’ve done one of two things when we went in another direction,” Pruitt said. “He could have given up on the season and said ‘you know what, I’m graduated. I’m going to transfer.’ But he didn’t do that. That’s not who he is. He’s a competitor.”
Tennessee needs Guarantano to flip the quarterback script in the Vanderbilt series. The Commodores have won three in a row and former quarterback Kyle Shurmur was a big reason why. He threw for 367 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-13 rout in Nashville last season. Two years ago in Knoxville, he threw for four TDs and 283 yards.
The Commodores’ winning streak against the Vols began with Shurmur throwing for 416 yards and two TDs in a 45-34 upset of then-No. 17 Tennessee in 2016.
Here’s some other related storylines:
Responding to ESPN report: In a report by ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” about college football coaches who have attempted to pressure medical staffs associated with their teams, former employees with UT’s sports medicine staff said that when Pruitt first arrived, he tried to pressure athletic trainers and interfere with how injured players were managed.
Pruitt denied the characterization on Wednesday during final pre-game press conference, saying the athletic training staff always has reported to the athletic director.
With regard to UT’s injuries this season, he referenced both the training and medical staff in saying “they do a phenomenal job getting these guys well.”
Eye on Vaughn: Tennessee will be particularly wary of Vanderbilt running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who’s rushed for 1,015 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Vaughn is averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
Vols linebacker Daniel Bituli is very familiar with Vaughn. They both played high school football in Nashville with Vaughn playing for Pearl-Cohn and Bituli for Nashville Christian.
“He has all the intangibles,” Bituli said. “You don’t play Tennessee (high school) football and not know Ke’Shawn and the records he’s pulled just in the Nashville area.”
Notebook: Tennessee safety Nigel Warrior about Vanderbilt: “We have to come in with our heads straight. We can’t look down on them.” … Although he’s a redshirt senior, graduate transfer Brandon Kennedy will not be taking a final bow on Saturday. Instead the Vols’ center intends to apply for a sixth season of eligibility. … UT set a school record with four players, Kennedy, Ryan Johnson, Matthew Butler and Paxton Brooks, receiving CoSIDA academic all-district first team honors.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He may be reached at email@example.com