Scouting Tennessee: Quarterback inconsistency and a strong offensive line

The Maneater spoke with the co-sports editor of the Daily Beacon for an inside look at the Volunteers.
Missouri quarterback Drew Lock scrambles in the Tigers' 50-17 beatdown of Tennessee on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018.

The Tennessee Volunteers head into their home opener against Missouri at 1-0, coming off a closer-than-expected road win against South Carolina.

Tennessee entered this season with high expectations after coach Jeremy Pruitt led the Volunteers to a six-game winning streak (now seven) and a bowl game appearance in 2019, which they won against Indiana. This came after a disappointing start to last season, with losses to Georgia State and BYU.

The Maneater spoke to Ryan Schumpert, co-sports editor of the Daily Beacon, for an inside look at Jarrett Guarantano, a vulnerable secondary and the rest of the Volunteers as they get set to take on the Tigers.

The Maneater: Tennessee went into the other Columbia and came out with a tight road win against South Carolina. What do you make of their Week One victory?

Ryan Schumpert, co-sports editor of the Daily Beacon: I think Tennessee did some things well. They ran the ball pretty well, won the turnover battle, didn’t commit many penalties. These are things that have been a problem, obviously last year against Georgia State in the opener, and then against West Virginia two years ago in the opener. And then there were certainly some problems, too. [Quarterback Jarrett] Guarantano was still very inconsistent, you don’t really know what you’re going to expect out of him each week, and Tennessee really got attacked in the middle of the field on a lot of slant routes. They had their starting nickel back out, and their second starting inside linebacker spot is two guys that really haven’t played a whole lot. That was somewhere South Carolina really attacked them and something they’re definitely gonna have to work on next week.

TM: Jarrett Guarantano put up solid numbers in the win, but like you said, he was a little inconsistent. What are your thoughts on his performance and what he’s capable of going forward?

RS: Obviously, he missed a lot of throws Saturday, but what he did Saturday is what they needed him to do in that game, and probably the Missouri, Arkansas and Vanderbilt games. He didn’t put the ball in harm’s way, he didn’t really hold onto it too long, other than one instance I’m thinking of — he got sacked on it — and he didn’t really get them behind the sticks either. He did what he needed to do: just take care of a team that they were probably better than. That’s the thing with Jarrett Guarantano, it’s a weekly rollercoaster. Who knows what you’re going to get next week? He could come out and play like he did against Missouri last year, which was probably the best game of his career where he threw for 400 yards. Or you could see him come out and do what he did the following week last year against Vanderbilt, where he threw for 75 yards and two interceptions. You really just don’t know what to expect and that’s going to be the week-to-week thing.

TM: The OL, lead by Trey Smith, is widely thought of as one of the best in the SEC. Did they live up to expectations on Saturday night?

RS: I don’t think they looked like the best in the SEC, but as a whole I thought they played pretty well there. I think they averaged over six yards rushing; it was closer to seven in the second half. It gave up two sacks, but one of those was really on the running back in pass protection and the other was Guarantano holding onto the ball for too long. They played well, but they didn’t blow me away, per se. South Carolina’s defensive line is replacing a lot of guys, so I thought there was maybe a little more room for them to get something going against a weaker defensive front. But as a whole, I thought they played well, like I would have expected.

TM:On the flip side, Tennessee gave up 27 points, mainly to Shi Smith. While they have a solid leader in Henry To’o To’o, what needs to improve on that side of the ball?

RS: The nickel back spot. Shawn Shamburger, their starting nickel back, didn’t play. Obviously, they’re not giving us anything official on COVID, or anything like that, but the murmurs are that he’s not gonna play, so you’re gonna see a true freshman in that slot again. They had two safeties that were expected to play a lot and that were available, but they just got out of contact tracing about three days before the game, so they didn’t play a whole lot. They need to be better against the pass in the middle of the field. That’s really what you saw from the South Carolina game, but as a whole I think they need to be more consistent up front, on the defensive line. [Coach Jeremy] Pruitt really criticized them in fall camp, and they didn’t necessarily play badly on Saturday, but I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement there.

TM:Looking at this Missouri team, what’s a matchup that the Vols can exploit?

RS: Last year, it was the passing game. I don’t know whether that’s gonna be the case again. I think that’s somewhere they’re gonna need to try to look, because obviously with Nick Bolton, that run defense is a little better than the pass defense. But I would say as a whole, Jeremy Pruitt has really been good against the teams that have been pretty one-dimensional. Obviously, it’s just one game for Shawn Robinson, I don’t know what he’s gonna look like all year, but there’s more confidence that you have to have in Missouri’s running game than their passing game. I think you’ll really see Tennessee load the box and force Missouri to beat them one-on-one with their corners, and that’s where Tennessee would have a little bit of an advantage.

TM: Many believe that Jeremy Pruitt could take the next step this year and challenge the superpowers of the SEC East. What needs to happen against Missouri for you to think that they have a shot?

RS: I would say better performance from the receivers. The receiver didn't really play badly on Saturday, but that’s the position where they’re breaking in a lot of new guys. Obviously, they lost Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway from a year ago. If they can have some more big-play guys, that would really go a long way for this offense. But at the end of the day, if Tennessee is gonna beat Georgia, if they’re gonna beat Florida, it’s gonna come down to No. 2. Guarantano has to play well in those games. There’s not anything he can do on Saturday that’s gonna magically make me think he’s gonna be consistent and play really well in those games.

TM:Final score prediction?

RS: 34-14 Tennessee. I could see Tennessee winning this game by three touchdowns, but at the same time I could see Tennessee struggling to put Missouri away… like they did against South Carolina. But with that being said, I’ll stick with 34-14.

Edited by Maia Bond | mbond@themaneater.com

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