This story was updated Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019, at 6:29 p.m. with more information.
KNOXVILLE — With all the competition going on at Tennessee football practices for starting spots, there has been one under-the-radar battle that is equally — if not perhaps more — important for the Volunteers going into the season.
With junior Jarrett Guarantano cemented into the starting spot, the only scholarship options at the position are redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout and true freshman Brian Maurer. Last season, it was Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst backing up Guarantano and participating in eight games, throwing for 450 yards and three touchdowns.
Four of those appearances came due to game-ending injuries suffered by Guarantano, who battled injuries all season long. Chryst's most extensive work came against Alabama, when he passed for 164 yards and two touchdowns, and Missouri, when he came in and threw for 173 yards but two interceptions, including a momentum-changing pickoff with the Vols driving while down 19-10 in the second quarter.
But Chryst is gone now, meaning that if something were to happen to Guarantano this season, head coach Jeremy Pruitt and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney would have to turn to one of the two freshmen. That's been a focus at camp, getting those two ready and up to speed in the event they're needed.
Chaney said recently that it's important to be able to figure out a clear backup going into the season.
"You have to be able to do that," he said. "You have to have someone you can put on the field and trust to be able to execute the offense, see what happens. There will be some good competition there. I think it's important.
"It's very hard when you haven't had a lot of reps doing stuff. It's like anything else we do. The more you do this interview with your little camera in your hand, the better you get at. I've seen that at quarterback play also. It all comes with repetition. We all get better, we hope, with repetition."
Both players have their strengths. Shrout has an additional year of experience in the program over Maurer. Once rated as a top-50 recruit in the state of California, the 6-foot-3, 213-pounder threw for 3,064 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2017 as a senior in high school. One of the issues he's struggled with in Knoxville — as he did in high school — was protecting the football, as he threw 25 interceptions as a high school senior and has had some of those same problems during preseason camp.
Maurer presents a little more of a dual-threat type of quarterback who can make plays with his feet. Inexperience seems to be his biggest issue now.
Both had moments during the spring game, some highs and lows. Shrout threw for 138 yards and didn't turn the ball over in the game, while Maurer was a combined 9-for-13 while playing for both the Orange (second-team offense) and White (first-team offense). Maurer also had a 12-yard run in the game and led the first scoring drive of the game but threw two interceptions to fellow true freshman Jaylen McCollough.
But it's clear that at least one of them has to get ready. They've been receiving most of the repetitions during individual drills that are viewable by the media at practice, signaling the coaching staff's desire to get the two as much work as possible.
"I think both guys need experience," Pruitt said. "They've both got really good arm talent. Brian can run around really well; probably when the play breaks down, he can extend and hurt you a little bit with his feet there. They've got to quit throwing the ball to the other team. They've got to take command of the offense when they're out there. They've got to understand situational football.
"We're throwing a lot at them, and both of them are doing a really good job competing every day, and they've created a lot of plays — both of them have. We've just got to continue to coach them up, and they've got to continue working hard to improve every single day."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.