KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano’s teammates love talking about his toughness, and lately the redshirt freshman has had far too many opportunities to showcase that trait.
Guarantano has thrown 57 passes and has been sacked 18 times in three starts, a frightening ratio that helps explains Tennessee’s offensive woes. Tennessee’s offense failed to score a touchdown for 15 consecutive quarters before reaching the end zone twice last week in a 29-26 loss at Kentucky .
The Vols (3-5) are trying to correct those pass-protection issues as they prepare for a homecoming matchup Saturday with Southern Mississippi (5-3).
“It’s just one-on-one matchups,” center/guard Jashon Robertson said. “The margin of error in this league is very small, so having your hands in the correct place, just taking the right steps in certain situations and stuff like that, those are really the main problems we have as far as protections.”
Robertson’s switch from center to left guard exemplifies the issues Tennessee’s had on its offensive line. Tennessee has started five different offensive line combinations, and freshman right guard Trey Smith is the only lineman to start each of the Vols’ first eight games at the same spot.
The offensive line figured to be one of Tennessee’s deepest units this season, but Chance Hall was lost for the season to a knee injury this summer, Venzell Boulware left the team at midseason and Jack Jones retired from football last week due to shoulder and elbow injuries.
The offensive line isn’t solely to blame for the pass-protection issues. Tennessee coach Butch Jones cites a combination of factors.
“Sometimes Jarrett Guarantano needs to throw the football away, understanding field position and where we’re at,” Jones said. “Sometimes it was a coverage sack and you have to throw the football away. Sometimes it’s not getting rid of the football quickly enough. Sometimes it’s a missed assignment or a running back (missing a block). So it wasn’t just on the offensive line.”
It’s worth noting that Quinten Dormady was sacked just three times in five starts before Guarantano replaced him as Tennessee’s starting quarterback midway through the season. Dormady now has a season-ending shoulder injury.
Guarantano has been sacked 20 times – twice when he took over for Dormady late in a 41-0 loss to Georgia and 18 more times since he became the starter. Guarantano’s desire to make something happen occasionally causes him to hold on to the ball too long.
Guarantano has been working on improving that part of his game. He said after the Kentucky game that he “definitely got the ball out a lot quicker” than before but added “there are still some things we can clean up.”
When he had time to throw last week, Guarantano was effective. He went 18 of 23 for 242 yards against Kentucky. He also has turned the ball over just once in three starts.
Guarantano has won praise from teammates for his accountability and grit. Guarantano said he told his teammates before the Kentucky game that he had “failed” them because Tennessee hadn’t won any of the games he’d started.
“I want to win for my coach, want to win for the guys around me,” Guarantano said after the game. “I just take a lot of ownership in being the quarterback at the University of Tennessee. I just expect so much out of myself. I just want to play great every single opportunity I get.”
He’s certainly shown his willingness to take a hit.
Tennessee needs Guarantano to stay healthy because the Vols’ only other available scholarship quarterback is freshman Will McBride, who hasn’t played all season. For all the times he already has been sacked, Guarantano keeps coming back and hasn’t allowed any of those hits to limit his aggressiveness.
“Time and time again, JG keeps displaying his toughness, his confidence, his grit and all of those things,” Robertson said. “I’m just ready for us to get a win and for him to really enjoy that side of what it’s like to play at Tennessee.”
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