A quarterback’s success at one school is not necessarily a reflection of what he’ll do at his next one. It’s a lesson Washington State fans know better than anyone.
Before he transferred to the Cougars, Gardner Minshew lived in American Athletic Conference obscurity, throwing for 2,140 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions as a junior at East Carolina before erupting for 4,779 yards, 38 touchdowns and nine interceptions the following season in Mike Leach’s Air Raid to win Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors and finish fifth in Heisman Trophy.
In 2019, one of the most accomplished QBs to play at the FCS level targeted WSU as a transfer destination, hoping to refine his skills and improve his visibility in the Pac-12 Conference. Instead, Gage Gubrud was hampered by an injury that kept him out of spring camp, then lost a position battle to returning senior Anthony Gordon.
One can assume Jarrett Guarantano did his homework on Minshew and Gubrud before the Tennessee transfer handpicked the Cougars last week, a move that gives fans another storyline to follow in 2021 and adds a layer of intrigue to Nick Rolovich’s QB room.
At this point, it’s difficult to characterize Guarantano’s addition as anything other than “intriguing.” The quarterback’s career in the SEC culminated with a 30-17 loss to No. 23 Auburn in which Guarantano threw zero touchdowns, a pick-six and was sacked three times. Proponents of the QB would note he had four offensive coordinators in five years and may point to a 2018 game against the same Auburn team. Guarantano threw for 328 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, leading the Volunteers to a 30-24 over the No. 21 Tigers – a win many consider to be the height of the Jeremy Pruitt era.
It’s anyone’s guess which version of Guarantano will show up in Pullman, so we selected 10 plays of the quarterback’s 41-game tenure in Knoxville to offer a more thorough look at the Cougars’ newest grad transfer.
2019 vs. South Carolina – 19-yard TD off back foot
The play: Guarantano took his fair share of hits in four seasons as an SEC quarterback – he was sacked 78 in 41 games – but at least one of those came while throwing a touchdown. One week after drawing the ire of Tennessee fans for a goal-line fumble against Alabama (we’ll get to that later), he threw a go-ahead touchdown against South Carolina while being drilled in the backfield – a play that culminated with the QB breaking a bone in his non-throwing hand.
What we saw: As Guarantano drops back, two South Carolina defenders begin to close in on the QB. In a split-second, he identifies a blitz from safety R.J. Roderick and simultaneously sees wide receiver Jauan Jennings creating separation downfield. Guarantano flings the ball off his back foot as he takes a shot from Roderick, placing the throw where it needs to be for Jennings to make a routine basket catch in the back of the end zone with a couple yards to spare.
2020 vs. Kentucky – pair of pick-sixes
The play(s): The most forgettable three-minute stretch of Guarantano’s career at Tennessee came last fall in a 34-7 loss to Kentucky. With 12:47 left in the second quarter, the Volunteers and Wildcats were stuck at 0-0 when Guarantano’s pass to Cedric Tillman was picked off and returned for a 41-yard touchdown by Kelvin Joseph. The first mistake leads to a second one less than three minutes later, as Guarantano’s pass to the middle of the field is intercepted by Jamin Davis, who makes a move to the sideline and dashes into the open field for an 85-yard score, drawing boos from the pro-Tennessee crowd.
What we saw: On the first play, SEC Network announcers are critical of Guarantano, who’s attempting to hit Tillman on a quick out to the sideline. “It’s the inconsistencies,” TV analyst Jordan Rodgers points out. “This is not a throw you should make, wide to the field, in tight man coverage against Kelvin Joseph, the transfer from LSU who’s a heckuva player.” After the snap, Guarantano opens his body up and locks in on his first read, giving Joseph enough time to break on the ball, step in front and make the clean pick. Minutes later, it appears Guarantano doesn’t recognize Jones, a linebacker, dropping back into coverage when he attempts to throw to a crossing slot receiver in between the hashes. The intended receiver, Jalin Hyatt, is standing 2½ yards directly behind Jones when the interception is made, indicating Guarantano simply didn’t see the defender or had too much confidence in his ability to squeeze his pass into the tightest of windows.
2020 at South Carolina – scrambling up the Gamecocks
The play: Already leading 14-7, the Volunteers were marching down the field when Guarantano, on second-and-6 from the South Carolina 32-yard line, sensed the pocket collapsing around him and scrambled for a 19-yard gain. Guarantano eluded an oncoming defensive tackle, picked up nearly 10 yards running through the middle of the field, made a quick change of direction, jumped over the outstretched arms of diving DB Cam Smith and gained almost 10 more yards before scurrying out of bounds.
What we saw: Don’t let Guarantano’s rushing numbers at Tennessee skew your opinion of how impactful he can be as a runner. Guarantano may not possess elite breakaway speed, but he’s agile for his size (6-4, 230), has the ability to break tackles and elude tacklers, as the aforementioned play showed, and may benefit from a fresh offensive scheme and improved play on the offensive line.
2019 at Vanderbilt – near-pick swatted to the ground
The play: Guarantano would eventually throw a first-half interception in the season finale against Vanderbilt, but he narrowly avoided what could’ve been a pick-six late in the first quarter, when 6-foot-4 edge rusher Josh Smith rises up to knock down a pass to the near sideline. The ball actually ricochets off Smith’s helmet before harmlessly dropping to the turf.
What we saw: The issue on this play isn’t necessarily the batted ball – that’s actually what saves an incompletion from becoming an interception, and almost surely a pick-six. Guarantano’s left tackle falls to the ground before he can block Smith, allowing the outside linebacker to disrupt the passing lane and make a play. If that play isn’t made, another one is by Vandy’s defense. Cornerback LaDarius Wiley had anticipated Guarantano’s sideline throw, broke on the pass and stepped in front of Tillman, the intended receiver. Guarantano’s suspect decision-making was bailed out by Smith’s block. Without it, Wiley collects the pass and gallops to the end zone for a Commodores touchdown.
2019 at Alabama – goal line gaffe
The play: Facing fourth-and-goal midway through the fourth quarter, Tennessee was in position to close its deficit to eight points against No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa when Guarantano made a critical error that wiped out any chances of a marquee win over Nick Saban and the Crimson. From the 1-yard line, Guarantano tries to jump over the top of Alabama’s offensive line, but loses the ball in the process. Cornerback Trevon Diggs scoops it up and returns it 100 yards for a Crimson Tide touchdown.
What we saw: Besides the fumble? Jeremy Pruitt chewing out Guarantano and grabbing his facemask as he returns to the sideline, then unloading on the QB in a postgame press conference, telling reporters “I don’t know about you, but it (expletive) me off.” Many were critical of Pruitt’s actions, but some hypothesized that was because Guarantano audibled, or “went rogue,” at the line of scrimmage. After the snap, a pulling guard opens up a running lane on the left side of the line, but rather than follow that block, or hand the ball off to a running back, Guarantano goes straight up the middle himself where he’s met by three crimson helmets.
2018 at South Carolina – running back flip for first down
The play: A field goal ultimately decided this 27-24 Tennessee loss in Columbia, but Guarantano completed nearly 70% of his passes for two touchdowns and no interceptions, and the QB demonstrated solid decision-making on a short flip to his running back to pick up 11 yards and a first down early on in the fourth quarter.
What we saw: The Gamecocks are able to get pressure with a three-man rush, while dropping eight into coverage, eliminating Guarantano’s passing options. Running back Tim Jordan initially takes on a blocking assignment before splitting out to give the QB a check down. As two more Gamecocks converge on Guarantano, he instantly flips the ball to Jordan, who takes on another pair of South Carolina defenders before moving the chains. Rodgers, the SEC Network analyst for this game, points out “for a quarterback that’s been taking as many hits as Guarantano has, continually impressed this game at how easily he finds his check downs.”
2019 at Missouri – turnover averted
The play: Behind 415 yards and two touchdowns from the junior quarterback, Guarantano and Tennessee secured their bowl berth by beating the Tigers 24-20, but not before an inauspicious start for the Volunteers offense. Tennessee’s first drive nearly culminated with a turnover when miscommunication between Guarantano and his center led to the ball being snapped while the QB was motioning to a receiver. Luckily, the ball took a pro-Tennessee bounce and Guarantano picked it up before throwing incomplete to the sideline.
What we saw: Perhaps it’s unfair to place the blame squarely on Guarantano, but quarterbacks generally take the fall when there’s miscommunication at the line of scrimmage and Tom Hart of the SEC Network notes, “It almost looked like Guarantano took his eyes off the ball, wasn’t ready for the snap.” To Guarantano’s credit, the QB mitigates the damage and makes a heady play once the ball is back in his hands, escaping pressure and throwing a near-completion on the run.
2018 at Vanderbilt – front corner touchdown
The play: Trailing 31-7 with less than nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter, the Volunteers made a blowout in-state rivalry loss look more respectable when Guarantano tossed a 17-yard touchdown to receiver Marquez Callaway. The QB ends up going 13 of 29 for 139 yards, with one touchdown and one interception, but this late score salvaged an otherwise poor outing for the then-redshirt sophomore.
What we saw: First off, the play isn’t made without an impressive move from Callaway at the line of scrimmage. With the cornerback playing press coverage, Callaway makes a cut inside after the ball is snapped, but quickly changes direction to gain a step on his defender. The receiver finishes his route in the front corner of the end zone, and Guarantano feeds a perfect throw over Callaway’s left shoulder, putting the ball in a spot where the defender is unable to make a play.
2020 vs. Auburn – “Smoked” at Auburn
The play: The third pick-six of Guarantano’s redshirt senior season in Knoxville was one of his final plays as an SEC quarterback. Facing second-and-7 from the 13-yard line, the Volunteers were in prime position to reclaim the lead over No. 23 Auburn and perhaps steal another upset win at Jordan Hare Stadium. In the blink of an eye, 13-10 turned to 20-10, as Auburn defensive back Smoke Monday intercepted Guarantano’s pass at the goal line and booked it down the sideline for a 100-yard interception return.
What we saw: A six-man rush from Auburn doesn’t buy Guarantano much time in the pocket and the QB is pressured into making a quick throw when linebacker Owen Pappoe breaks into the backfield. Given Tennessee’s field position, the down and distance and the fact the Volunteers are trailing by just three points, there’s no real need for Guarantano to force a throw into traffic. It’s clear the QB is targeting receiver Josh Palmer in the back of the end zone, but he doesn’t see Auburn’s safety step into his line of sight, and Guarantano makes the throw anyway. Even if Smoke doesn’t get there in time to make a play, Auburn corner Roger McCreary is covering Palmer tightly enough to break up the pass or make a pick himself.
2020 vs. Missouri – 36-yard sideline fade
The play: We’ll end on one of the better throws we saw Guarantano make in 2020. Tennessee soundly beat Missouri, 35-12, in the second game of the season, and Guarantano kickstarted the Volunteers’ offense with a pretty 36-yard completion to Jalin Hyatt. The third-and-7 play moved Tennessee to Missouri’s 13-yard line and set up the touchdown that would come five plays later.
What we saw: Guarantano realizes the Tigers are playing man coverage against one of his quickest receivers and almost immediately locks in on Hyatt. The freshman slotback turns on the jets, races past Mizzou safety Joshuah Bledsoe, hauling in Guarantano’s pass over his right shoulder before stepping out of bounds. Tennessee’s passionate fanbase scrutinized the QB for his decision-making, but his arm strength has never been an issue and renowned quarterbacks coach George Whitfield Jr. once claimed Guarantano has “one of the biggest arms in college football,” while ex-NFL QB Trent Dilfer told FOX Sports, “Guarantano can make every throw in the book – and do so with unmatched speed and power.” Certainly, Guarantano will need to improve his accuracy and consistency, but ability won’t be the thing holding him back at WSU.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Cougs newsletter
Get the latest Cougs headlines delivered to your inbox as they happen.