JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Whether or not he likes to admit it, Jarrett Guarantano thrives on controversy.
There really is no other explanation for anything that happened with the Tennessee quarterback throughout the 2019 season, which will go down as one of the most confusing ones in history for the 6-foot-4, 216-pounder.
He finished his redshirt junior campaign with modest passing stats: a 59% completion rate, 2,158 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He did so while starting eight games and finishing 12, coming off the bench on five occasions as one of the more vital 12th men in the country.
And as its quarterback thrived under the circumstances, Tennessee did as well. It's not very often a team can consider a season a success in which it shuffles quarterbacks in and out like a dine-in restaurant during a lunch rush, but the Volunteers (8-5) started four quarterbacks - including one, senior Jauan Jennings, who was a receiver - in the season that ended with Thursday night's 23-22 win against Indiana in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
In the games in which the Vols stuck with just one quarterback, they went 2-2. In the games multiple quarterbacks played, they were 6-3.
Guarantano was a frustrating test of patience for most Tennessee fans. At his peak, he threw for 415 yards against a Missouri passing defense that was ranked in the top three nationally. At his worst, he was missing open receivers, leading to incomplete drives that ended in punts.
No one knows if there's a magic button to press to bring the best out of Guarantano from game to game - or for that matter, from possession to possession. But Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt seems to have an idea of what works. He benched Guarantano after his interception was returned for a touchdown during Thursday's game in favor of freshman Brian Maurer, who also was ineffective and was replaced by Guarantano after one series.
Apparently, the brief time on the bench worked.
"Well, I played for a high school basketball coach. If you shot a shot and you missed it and you wasn't the first one back on defense, he took you out of the game," Pruitt said Thursday night. "I learned at an early age if I was going to shoot it, I'd better at least get back fast on defense, right? The way I look at quarterbacks, Jarrett didn't play good. You know, I have lots of confidence in him, but he didn't play good, and if you don't play good, we've got other good players behind him.
"We put Brian in. Brian didn't play good. Probably threw three plays that should have been intercepted, and they kicked a field goal, you know. It's part of it. Nobody is entitled to anything around here. We have to earn it, earn every bit of it. Jarrett knows it; Brian knows it; everybody that's associated with our program knows it. It's a performance-based industry, and we've got to perform. Jarrett performed pretty good when he came back in there, you know, and we needed him to."
And that's life on the Guarantano coaster, a topsy-turvy, free-wheeling ride that lasts about 60 minutes of game time. With about eight minutes to go in Thursday's game and the Hoosiers (8-5) leading 22-9, Tennessee fans started to head toward the exits and writers were putting the final touches on their stories about how the Vols had lost another confusing game, one they dominated early in the first half but failed to execute when it mattered and ultimately fell apart in the final 30 minutes.
Those writers don't know this Tennessee team, led by this quarterback. Guarantano completed six of seven passes for 92 yards on the two scoring drives that completed the comeback victory.
Guarantano said he doesn't seek out adversity, but whether it's the ineffectiveness that led to him being taken out of the starting lineup in favor of Maurer, then Jennings, then J.T. Shrout for a five-game stretch; to the on-field decisions against Alabama that led to him receiving death threats; to even the struggles in the red zone and the interceptions that defined the first 45 minutes of the season finale, he certainly found a way to thrive in it.
"I thought before the first interception, before we had the miscommunication or whatever it was, I think we were moving the ball but were unable to execute in the red zone," Guarantano said. "But throughout the season, the games, I don't think adversity was needed, but it actually helped out, whether it was my work ethic or my thought process.
"I don't plan on using adversity much anymore, but this season it meant a lot to me to be able to grow as a person and a player."