KNOXVILLE - Jeremy Pruitt's Tennessee coaching staff spent a good portion of the 2019 football season hiding its quarterback.
Play at that position was, at best, average. Four players - three quarterbacks and receiver Jauan Jennings - took snaps behind center, and if a word could be used to describe the group, "inconsistent" would suffice. Each of the QBs had good moments but nothing that would elicit hope to be a viable long-term option for the Volunteers.
Jarrett Guarantano was the unquestioned starter to open the season, but his lackluster play cost him the job after four games and a 1-3 record. That opened the door for freshman Brian Maurer, whose first college completion went for 73 yards and a touchdown to Marquez Callaway against Georgia. His sixth completion went for 12 yards to Jennings for another score, but he proceeded to throw no more touchdowns and five interceptions and completed less than half of his passes to end the season. He also struggled with head injuries that caused him to miss multiple games.
Redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout started against South Carolina and Alabama-Birmingham and played extensively in the Vols' 41-21 win over the Gamecocks on Oct. 26, throwing a beautiful 55-yard touchdown pass to Callaway. But he appeared to struggle with his decision-making, and the coaches brought Guarantano off the bench in those games.
Maurer was back under center to start at Kentucky. However, his ineffectiveness led to Guarantano coming back in, and the latter engineered a comeback victory to regain his starting spot and keep it the rest of the year.
The end result was a six-game win streak to end the season and an 8-5 record, which has brought hope heading into 2020. The Vols lost some quality receivers but have improved the offensive line and the running back position. The biggest question mark going into spring practice - which begins Tuesday - and beyond is who is going to lead the team into the season? All three 2019 quarterbacks return, and the Vols also brought in Harrison Bailey and Jimmy Holiday to compete.
Today we make a case for each of those options, plus one, to take the starting quarterback job.
Guarantano: The rising senior was the safest option last year and likely will be the same this year. Pruitt said on multiple occasions last season that he gave the team the best chance to win, but he still has room to grow. For one thing, he needs to improve on his decisiveness with the football, as a number of his throws were late, leading to incompletions and interceptions. Everybody was a witness to the Guarantano Experience last season, all the highs and lows of it, and for all his warts he played a role in every win the team had. For the first time in his five-year career, he'll have the same offensive coordinator for consecutive seasons, and that has to be a positive. If so he'll be the best option, bar none.
Maurer: If Guarantano doesn't take a step forward, Maurer has shown that he's ready to come in at any moment (remember the BYU game?) and has the confidence to make any throw. The problem is that his first season was built more on moments as opposed to consistently good play. Yeah, he was a freshman and some of his interceptions were a result of trying to make a play, but Pruitt has made it clear that decision-making from his quarterback is paramount. Maurer has the mobility to make plays out of the pocket and the arm to make throws in it. If he quits being a turnover machine, maybe the coaching staff chooses to go with an option who's more mobile than Guarantano.
Shrout: No other Tennessee quarterback last season displayed the arm strength that Shrout did. But as with Maurer, decision-making was a problem. Some of Shrout's issues could stem from the fact that he just hasn't played a lot of football - he didn't start until his senior year of high school, then sat out the 2018 season as a redshirt - and with what is expected to be an improved offensive line, perhaps the coaches go with the gunslinger, who has no qualms about throwing the ball downfield. And with faster options on the perimeter with the incoming recruits, maybe a downfield passing offense is the direction to go.
Bailey: The best thing about being an incoming freshman is that everyone is basing how good you are on how good you were at a lower level. That's not to say it won't translate, but everyone loves the highlights, which Bailey has plenty of. He was one of the top passers in Georgia high school history and led Marietta to a Class AAAAAAA state championship in his final season. Rumors have begun to leak that the early enrollee has been pushing the quarterbacks in workouts. If he can surpass them all, maybe it's the right idea to go with the young gun who can grow with a good offensive line and young, albeit talented weapons around him.
Holiday: Hey, it's 2020 and dual-threat quarterbacks are a big thing. Look around the NFL and you see players such as the Baltimore Ravens' Lamar Jackson and the Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen leading their teams to playoff appearances. Holiday is a talented runner and a pretty good passer. The element of the run game at that position could open up opportunities for the running backs as well as the downfield passing game that the Vols thrived in a year ago.
Wild card Kasim Hill: He's just a walk-on and he's had multiple season-ending knee injuries, but Hill started 12 games during his career at Maryland and beat Texas twice. His stock has dropped considerably after the injuries - to the point he had to be a walk-on - but if he could regain some of his previous form, he is another intriguing option for Tennessee who has shown he can win games at the college level.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.