KNOXVILLE - Through it all, Jarrett Guarantano stood tall.
The down-and-up season for the Tennessee junior quarterback hit its lowest point in the Volunteers' 35-13 loss to Alabama on Oct. 19 and the moments and days immediately following.
The firestorm came after Guarantano "went rogue" on what appeared to be a goal-line play called for big freshman Quavaris Crouch, the team's best runner in short-yardage situations. The score was 28-13, and a Vols touchdown would have got them within a touchdown and conversion with plenty of time remaining. Instead, Guarantano called a play for himself and attempted to leap over a pile for the score. The ball came out of his hands and rolled into the end zone, where Alabama defensive back Trevon Diggs scooped it up and ran 100 yards for a touchdown.
After the game, Guarantano received death threats on social media - a rumor floating around Knoxville that Guarantano confirmed after Tennessee defeated Missouri 24-20 last Saturday. His sister Victoria, a student at Tennessee, also received what Jarrett called "mean messages."
"There's a fine line," Guarantano said Saturday night. "I get a lot of love (on social media), and if there's some bad things I hear about it, but I'm really not too worried about it. I'm really just worried about how my teammates feel about me and how the coaches react and feel about me as well."
"My teammates were all there for me, and that really meant a lot. Those were some hectic times for me, and they were there every step of the way for me like I was there for them in the past. It really just meant a lot for me, and hopefully I'll be able to pay them back the way I did tonight."
What Guarantano had just done was throw for a career-best 415 yards and two touchdowns in the important win, which made the Vols (6-5, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) bowl-eligible for the first time in three years. Three receivers - Josh Palmer, Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway - each went over 100 yards and combined for 16 catches and 349 yards in the win in Guarantano's first start since the Florida game on Sept. 21.
He was named Monday the SEC offensive player of the week.
In his last four games - all Tennessee wins - he has completed 61% of his passes for 906 yards and seven touchdowns to just one interception.
"Absolutely incredible," offensive lineman Trey Smith said of Guarantano on Saturday night. "Dude's a competitor. He got beat up a lot, man, especially on social media. You see what he did, consistently, day in and day out. You see the result, man, and there's no one more deserving. When everybody was talking all that trash about him, he was always in the facility. I mean, until like 12 o'clock, just watching film, watching film, watching film. Learning what he can do better, and the results are there.
"We feel it in our hearts, just what he's been through and what he is now. What he's had to go through this season, and the way he's performing, and the way he's held it (together) with so much grace and class. What can you say about a dude? You saw what you saw out there today - the heart, the competitive spirit. That's my brother, man. I love him."
So Saturday night, none of the past mattered to Guarantano. In fact, he noted that he plans to come back to Tennessee for his final season of eligibility in 2020 despite rumors that he would transfer after the season. He already has graduated, so he would be immediately eligible if he chose to move, but that didn't sound like an option he wanted to entertain.
"I'm a Tennessee Vol," he said. "I've put my body on the line for the past three years. I've put my mind, my heart and my soul into this. I love Knoxville and I'm a Tennessee Vol; I'm thankful to get an opportunity to get another two games going, and hopefully next year we get on a little roll, but I'm a Tennessee Vol."
Coach Jeremy Pruitt said Monday that he wasn't aware of the death threats but noted that it was something that "should be taken seriously." As for the quarterback's play on the field, Pruitt said Saturday night that it was "far and away his best game."
"It was probably my last opportunity, to be honest," Guarantano said. "For me, to be able to come out and start, to get this opportunity again, I didn't have any option but to come out here and try to play my best ball, and it just felt good to be able to start again."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.