KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Nobody exemplifies Tennessee’s impressive recovery from a dismal start better than rejuvenated quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
Guarantano said he received death threats as he struggled through the first half of the season, lost his starting spot and fumbled away Tennessee’s hopes of upsetting Alabama. Rather than going into a shell or entering the transfer portal, Guarantano worked his way back into a featured role with the team.
Now the player guy who received the brunt of criticism from fans during Tennessee’s 1-4 start has regained his status as Tennessee’s first-team quarterback. He has helped the Vols (6-5, 4-3 SEC) win four straight heading into their regular-season finale Saturday with Vanderbilt (3-8, 1-6).
“I can’t say enough about what kind of grit, determination and character that he has to hang in here,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “He’s helped us kind of turn this season around.”
Guarantano, a fourth-year junior, made his first start since Sept. 21 last week and threw for a career-high 415 yards in a 24-20 victory at Missouri that made the Vols bowl eligible for the first time since 2016. Guarantano joined Peyton Manning and Tyler Bray as the only Tennessee players ever to throw for over 400 yards in a game.
“This was probably my last opportunity, to be honest,” Guarantano said after the game. “For me to be able to come out and start and get this opportunity again, I didn’t have any option but to come out here and try to play my best ball.’’
Guarantano delivered that performance one week after coming off the bench and rallying Tennessee from a 13-3 halftime deficit in a 17-13 triumph at Kentucky.
Over his last six quarters, Guarantano has completed 62.5% of his passes for 530 yards with four touchdown passes and no interceptions.
“He’s earned the trust of his teammates back,” wide receiver Jauan Jennings said. “We always trusted JG. We told him he’s always had it in him. Just to see it come out of him makes us proud.”
Guarantano has come a long way since that miserable night in Alabama last month, when he replaced an injured Brian Maurer.
The Vols trailed Alabama 28-13 and faced fourth-and-goal from inches away midway through the fourth quarter when Guarantano attempted to dive across the goal line and lost control of the ball. Alabama's Trevon Diggs returned the fumble 100 yards for a game-clinching touchdown as the Crimson Tide won 35-13.
Tennessee's blocking on that play suggested the Vols had planned to hand off rather than sneak on the fourth-down attempt.
Guarantano said he apologized to the team after the Alabama game. His willingness to do that impressed his teammates.
“It just shows a lot of character,” safety Nigel Warrior said. “It shows what kind of man he is, because not a lot of people would do that.”
Guarantano is thankful to his teammates for sticking by him when things were at their worst.
“There were so many guys that were there for me throughout the death threats, the mean messages to the sister, they were all there for me,” Guarantano said. “It really meant a lot. There were some hectic times for me, and they were there for me every step of the way like I was there for them in the past.’’
Guarantano has been a different player ever since.
He’s done all that despite breaking a bone in his left (non-throwing) hand against South Carolina.
“It’s been a maturation process for him,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “I was watching him in the season, watching his games, and his decision making and his ability to command situations has gotten better, and that’s why they’ve gotten better.”
Now that he’s helped make Tennessee bowl eligible, Guarantano will try to help the Vols end their three-game losing streak in their annual series with Vanderbilt. Guarantano went 13 of 29 for just 139 yards in a 38-13 loss at Vanderbilt last season.
A victory would enable Guarantano to continue his stunning re-emergence. Midway through last season, it seemed hard to believe Guarantano would be back with Tennessee in 2020. Guarantano now can’t imagine himself anywhere else.
“I’ve put my mind, heart, soul into this,” Guarantano said. “I love Knoxville. I’m a Tennessee Vol.”
AP sports writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.