Jarrett Guarantano shows promise in first-career start
KNOXVILLE — Jarrett Guarantano had one last second to make his dream-come-true moment that much sweeter Saturday.
The redshirt freshman took the final snap at the South Carolina 2-yard line, down six and when he rolled out to his right and released the ball, Guarantano thought Brandon Johnson was going to haul in the game-winning catch.
But his pass fell incomplete and the Gamecocks rushed the field, celebrating a 15-9 Southeastern Conference victory and leaving Guarantano and the Vols in agony in front of 98,104 fans inside Neyland Stadium.
“I thought I had him,” Guarantano said, “but a better throw, whatever I have to do. That was about it. I had to get out of the pocket and make a play.”
Leading up to that final play, Guarantano set up Tennessee (3-3, 0-3 SEC) perfectly after being sacked on the first play of the potential game-winning drive. He completed three consecutive passes — the longest a 37-yard strike to Johnson — to put Tennessee inside the 5.
A defensive pass interference call inched the Vols to the 2, but three straight incomplete passes finished Guarantano’s 11 of 18 passing outing at 133 yards.
“It was a difficult situation, obviously, one-minute drill and no timeouts,” said UT head coach Butch Jones of Guarantano. “I thought he was very poised and very calm. Made some plays with his legs.
“I’m very anxious to go back and watch the video. In terms of showing poise and making your first start, I think there are a lot of things positively to build upon.”
It was a moment the New Jersey native grew up dreaming about. Guarantano said the nerves were so bad that he couldn’t sleep Friday night or eat before playing South Carolina (5-2, 3-2).
Being in that dream moment didn’t hit home until he took the first snap from Jashon Robertson, but once it hit him in his hands, he was locked in.
“I was very nervous,” he said. “I was very anxious and just being able to do something like this — something that I’ve dreamed of since I was very little — I think it truly fulfilled my dreams and I’m thankful for this opportunity.
“I felt very comfortable out there and I think I’m starting to get the hang of this thing. I can only go up.”
He made the most of his opportunity; one he claimed he was distraught over when Quinten Dormady earned the starting job over him.
He orchestrated a seven-play, 46-yard drive on his opening possession that resulted in the first of three Brent Cimaglia field goals. Tennessee’s next drive went 14 plays for 80 yards, but again, it ended in another field goal.
His third red zone trip, an 14-play drive, before halftime was halted at the South Carolina 15, turning into three more points.
After leading the UT offense to 178 first-half yards — the most in the first 30 minutes this season — the Vols offense went dormant, gaining just 75 more with 67 of those coming in the fourth quarter.
“I thought we were playing very well before in the first half,” Guarantano said. “We got in a goal line situation and we didn’t execute like we should have, but I think we played well in the first half and came out in the second half and we didn’t perform like we should have or wanted to.”
Seven sacks for minus-46 yards made Guarantano less effective, too. The redshirt freshman said he thought it was a mixture of things like miscommunication or him just not getting out of the pocket and scrambling more.
He also said the Gamecocks adjusted to his designed runs by playing more of zone and moving lower on him in the box in the second half. He did make plays happen with his legs when nothing was open through the air, though his 17 rushes equaled minus-2 yards, due to the negative-sack plays.
Guarantano showed promise, especially on the almost game-winning drive, but he’ll the other 10 Vols on offense to do more next Saturday and beyond to help him thrive under center.
“He was incredible. I don’t know what else he could have done,” UT offensive lineman Brett Kendrick said. “What else can we ask him to do? He ran the ball when we needed it and took some hits. I thought his poise was incredible at the end of the game there in his first start to lead us on a game-winning drive.
“We just came up a little short. He’s special and has a lot of talent. I thought he was huge for us.”