Renewed Tennessee Quarterback Controversy

Tennessee Quarterback Controversy

Is there a renewal to the offseason Tennessee quarterback controversy? In case you missed it over the weekend, the SEC game of the week featured the Third Saturday in October for the fourth straight year.  Also for the third straight year, Alabama dominated for 60 minutes, resulting in a 58-21 victory for the Tide. This extended the current losing streak for Tennessee to 12 games, the longest such streak in the rivalry’s storied history.

While many Tennessee fans had succumbed to the inevitable extension of the losing streak to Nick Saban’s machine, the worst case scenario came true for the Volunteer faithful. In the second quarter of Saturday’s contest, quarterback Jarrett Guarantano left the game with an apparent chest injury. Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson delivered a crushing hit to the quarterback as he ran untouched through the Tennessee line.

It was later revealed that Guarantano had sustained a minor collarbone injury, but would not return to the game. In his absence, backup quarterback Keller Chryst turned in a respectable performance. He lead the offense with a poise and confidence characteristic of that of a fifth year senior. On his first two drives, he delivered touchdowns to close out the half. This included a beautiful throw to Tyler Byrd in the endzone between two defenders. Now the coaching staff must reevaluate the quarterback position heading into their divisional match-up against the South Carolina Gamecocks as the Tennessee quarterback controversy from the summer is renewed. Here we will make a case for each before sharing our thoughts on the matter.

Making the case: Keller Chryst

Many fans are singing the praises of Keller Chryst after his performance this weekend. Chryst delivered an impressive 9-15 for 164 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions in his limited two and a half quarters of action on Saturday. This stellar performance has created the new Tennessee quarterback controversy, as Guarantano appeared to struggle early prior to getting injured. In particular, Chryst showed that reports from camp regarding the weakness of his deep ball may have been misplaced. On his second touchdown of the day, he placed a nice ball between the safety, the linebacker, and a cornerback to give Tyler Byrd a 19 yard touchdown and the receivers first of the year.

Before that play, he threw a nice downfield pass to Jauan Jennings on the back shoulder to give the receiver a chance at the 50/50 ball. Throughout the afternoon, Chryst showed his propensity as a game manager. He was efficient, effective and safe with the football. So should he start at South Carolina?

If Guarantano is less than 100%

Let’s start with the easiest scenario. If Guarantano’s injury is significant enough to keep him on the injury report and off the sidelines Saturday, Chryst has proven he can handle the pressure of an SEC defense.  He would not limit Tennessee’s offense should he assume the starting role in Guarantano’s absence. However, Jeremy Pruitt shared in his press conference on Monday that he expected Guarantano to be available this weekend.

This brings us to our second scenario. In this scenario, we have a Guarantano who is healthy enough to play, but is playing at less than 100%. Even with Guarantano available, if the collar bone soreness affects his throwing motion or play in any capacity, the coaching staff needs to give the sophomore more time to get fully healthy. Rushing Guarantano back into action would only increase the risk for re-injury. The benefit of his presence is too marginal to risk long term issues.

Guarantano looks as though he will be the quarterback of the future going into next year. Without a divisional title realistically in play for the Vols in 2018, risking your starting quarterback’s long term health doesn’t make sense, especially with an injury to the clavicle that can affect one’s throwing rhythm. Chryst has proven he can fill in without limiting the offenses playbook. In the event Guarantano is anything less than 100%, Chryst should get the start and give Jarrett a chance to get fully healthy.

If Guarantano is healthy and 100%

If both quarterbacks are healthy, a case can still be made for Chryst to start. Pruitt has shown that he will make the necessary roster changes to give them the best chance to win now rather than play for the future. Keller Chryst has much more experience under his belt, and those who would want to start Chryst over Guarantano are quick to point out he is 11-2 as a starter. (Chryst has not started a game at Tennessee at this point, only serving in relief duty in Florida and Alabama when Guarantano went down after the game was out of hand).  All reports out of preseason camp reported that the quarterback competition was too close to call up to opening week in Charlotte.

In his limited action this year, Chryst has shown that the extra years of experience have given him a better pre-snap read of the defense than Guarantano has shown. In particular, he is able to diagnose blitz packages and get the ball out of his hands quickly. Guarantano, on the other hand, has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long. A good example of this is the sack fumble that resulted in Alabama’s second touchdown of the afternoon Saturday. Guarantano missed the backside edge blitz in his pre-snap reads, and while waiting for the slower developing deep route, took a hard hit and lost the football deep in Tennessee territory. This was eerily similar to the fumble that started the tailspin during the Florida game.

Later in the game, Chryst faced a similar blitz. In this instance, Chryst identified the pressure, delivered a quick strike to the underneath receiver, and the Vols offense picked up a chunk play. Be it experience, poise in the pocket, or good study habits in the film room, Chryst seems to make a better, more complete presnap read to exploit the defense. This may come in time to Guarantano, but you can make the argument that with similar physical ability at this time, this added understanding of the game makes Chryst the quarterback to win now.

Making The case: Jarrett Guarantano

Coming out of the Auburn game, the preseason Tennessee quarterback controversy seemed a distant memory. Guarantano was coming off a career game and had shown signs of growth in recent weeks leading the offense. The Maxwell Football Club named Guarantano the national player of the week, and he had a bright outlook moving forward. Cue one seemingly inevitable injury thanks to a porous offensive line, and the position is as wide open as ever.

So why should or could Guarantano start over Chryst this weekend? The obvious argument here is the upside to gaining experience for Guarantano for the ensuing years. His tangible progress already shown under Helton is encouraging. The more game reps and film he can have under his belt, the better his progression will be.

However, looking toward to the future is not the only reason for supporting Guarantano to retain the starting role. Guarantano also seems to have developed a good rapport with this receiving core. In particular, Jennings and Josh Palmer seem to be on the same page as the young quarterback. Their timing has steadily improved week by week. In addition, Guarantano is learning to trust this big, strong receiving core to go up and get the 50/50 ball. He also has the better arm strength and gives the Vols the best chance to stretch the field. While Chryst may be the safer quarterback, Guarantano seems to be a big play waiting to happen.

In all, Guarantano should not be judged harshly for the struggles in the Alabama game. Tennessee will likely not face a defense as talented as Alabama for the remainder of the season. No quarterback has had significant success against the Tide thus far. The quarterbacks spent most of the afternoon under duress and could not set to throw. However, he is still the quarterback to lead Tennessee to it’s first win against the SEC West since 2010. He has shown he can lead the Volunteers in big moments. A rough day against the best team in the country shouldn’t be a reason to doubt the strides he’s shown.

Prediction

In the end, we stick by the comments in our newcomers to watch article from the preseason. Jarrett Guarantano and Keller Chryst are very comparable when it comes to their ability to lead this offense. Neither seems to give the offense a significant and consistent boost compared to the other. Likewise, neither player poses a significant hindrance on the offensive game plan. As long as both quarterbacks are healthy, Guarantano gives the most upside to this offense with a propensity for the big play with his arm and the opportunity for continued growth into years two and three for Tyson Helton and Jeremy Pruitt. Tennessee’s offensive line should be able to keep the pocket cleaner for the quarterback this weekend against the Gamecocks, and Guarantano has already shown he can hurt a defense when given time to deliver strikes.