Why is Jarrett Guarantano still here?
It’s a question we’ve all wondered throughout the past 11 months. He answered that question Friday.
Guarantano’s Tennessee Vols career has had its sterling moments, but also enough adversity, failures and criticisms to send a player scurrying to the transfer portal.
But the fifth-year senior is still standing as Tennessee’s starting quarterback. He’s here because this is where he wants to be.
“I’m looking at a big thing on the wall that says ‘This is Rocky Top,’” Guarantano said Friday during a Zoom interview while taking stock of his surroundings inside UT’s media work room, “… and those words and just this place mean so much to me.”
Rocky. That’s a fitting word to describe Guarantano’s Tennessee career.
Before he even appeared in a game, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit criticized Guarantano’s sideline demeanor during the Vols’ 2017 season opener against Georgia Tech after Quentin Dormady won the starting job. Guarantano later replaced Dormady as starter, and he became a piñata behind a porous offensive line for two seasons. Losses mounted.
Guarantano worked under four different offensive coordinators, each with his own system, throughout his first four seasons. Nonetheless, he entered last season exuding confidence.
The good times didn’t last.
Guarantano’s shaky performance played a hand in back-to-back losses to Georgia State and BYU to open last season. Criticism of the Vols quarterback reached a fever pitch. He said he experienced death threats, and his sister, also a UT student, received mean messages. He lost his starting job. Needed as a backup against Alabama, he fumbled near the goal line after deviating from the designed play. His head coach offered a tongue-lashing and tugged on his face mask upon his return to the sideline.
Many wondered whether that might be it for Guarantano’s Vols career. Instead, he responded by playing some of the best football of his career. He became a spark off the bench and helped launch a six-game winning streak to close the season. In November, he regained the starting job, and he rallied Tennessee to a comeback victory in the Gator Bowl.
“When it’s all said and done, it was refreshing to watch him be at his lowest of lows and then rebound,” quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke said.
What Jarrett Guarantano would tell his younger self
Transferring is as easy as it has ever been in college football. Without much trouble, a player can have his name entered into the NCAA transfer portal and be gone in a flash. Five of the projected starting quarterbacks at SEC programs are transfers.
Joe Burrow, an Ohio State transfer, led LSU to a national championship last season and won the Heisman Trophy. And Justin Fields became one of the nation’s best quarterbacks at Ohio State after transferring from Georgia.
Guarantano has his degree. As a graduate transfer, he would have been eligible to play at another school without sitting out.
Instead, he chose to continue a Tennessee career that has featured enough twists and turns to fill a memoir.
“I was thinking about my journey here, and there is no place that I would rather be, honestly,” Guarantano said. “Of course, there’s been ups and downs. In life, you experience many ups and downs, so it was nothing for me. There were some things I had to grow and learn from, and I wouldn’t undo any of this.”
He would, though, like to go back in time and offer his younger self some words of caution: Becoming a quality college quarterback is a process. Don’t rush it. Don’t expect success to come easily.
Guarantano admits there were times in his life where results came naturally. He had his choice from a who’s who list of college football programs after a stellar career at Bergen Catholic in New Jersey. He committed to Tennessee in a video from Times Square.
If he thought success would transition to college without any hardships, he was mistaken.
“When I went to college, there were some things that I had to overcome,” Guarantano said. “There were some things that I had to learn for myself. Those things allowed me to work harder and become more mature as a person. Those are some invaluable lessons that I learned, and I’m thankful that I actually got a chance to learn them.”
Why Jarrett Guarantano feels more comfortable
Tom Brady is having to learn a new playbook for the first time since his rookie season after transitioning from the Patriots to the Buccaneers. In August, Guarantano commented on Twitter in response to an ESPN story that detailed how Brady was struck by the challenge of learning a new playbook.
“Mhhhhh…,” Guarantano wrote.
Guarantano knows all about learning new playbooks.
Now, for the first time in his Tennessee career, he’s working within the same offense for consecutive seasons under second-year offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
“It feels way more comfortable,” Guarantano said. “I feel like my mind’s not going 100,000 different places. I have a pre-snap read, post-snap read, and being able to really, truly understand the offense’s ins and outs, it allows me to move faster. It allows me to see things come open way quicker and deliver the ball more on time and accurately.”
“There’s just a lot less indecisiveness,” he added.
Guarantano said his teammates see that he’s more comfortable in the offense. That, in turn, gives them more confidence.
“I’ve always felt like I was a smart football player, but being able to have Year 2 under the same offense, it allows me to kind of show it a little bit,” said Guarantano, a 25-game career starter.
Weinke said Guarantano has developed into “a functional thinker.” He processes information and executes the play at a faster pace.
“His anticipation, in my opinion, has probably been the brightest spot that I’ve seen from a year ago,” Weinke said.
No one questions that Guarantano has an SEC-caliber arm.
He reiterated that last season against Missouri, when he threw for 415 yards and two touchdowns. The previous week, he completed 7 of 8 passes in a relief performance to rally the Vols past Kentucky.
But he’s Jekyll and Hyde. Too often, he has hamstrung the offense, like in last season’s loss to Florida, when he threw two interceptions before getting benched.
Last winter, Guarantano targeted his inconsistency and his leadership as two areas he wanted to improve.
“That’s really been my focus,” he said.
He also committed to improving his physical tools. He bulked up and returned to campus this summer weighing 228 pounds. Last season, Tennessee’s roster listed him at 213.
Guarantano worked with quarterback coaches Tony Racioppi in New Jersey and Quincy Avery in Atlanta after Tennessee’s spring practice ended after two sessions because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Guarantano worked on his pocket movement, foot quickness, passing accuracy and ball placement.
“I was motivated as ever,” Guarantano said. “I didn’t have the season that I wanted to have last year. Going into this one, I know I want to have a big year, so it wasn’t hard for me to wake up every morning ready to work.”
Guarantano wants to be at Tennessee.
Now, he wants to play to the level he believes he can.
“I’m lucky to be a Tennessee Vol,” Guarantano said, “and I wouldn’t change that for the world.”
Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake’s subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.