KNOXVILLE — Jarrett Guarantano's career at Tennessee has been, if nothing else, polarizing.
After announcing his commitment to the Volunteers in New York's Times Square, Guarantano has been in the spotlight since first arriving. At times he's lived up to the expectations, other times not so much.
Yet if the 6-foot-4, 213-pound New Jersey native's career to date had to be described in one word, it would be hard to find one better than "tough."
He entered this season as the unquestioned starting quarterback for the Vols, only to lose that role in the past month to freshmen Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout. Even receiver Jauan Jennings started Tennessee's win over South Carolina.
Unfazed, Guarantano slid into a backup role and has played in each of the team's past five games, coming up huge in wins over Mississippi State, South Carolina and most recently, Alabama-Birmingham, by completing 64% of his passes for 482 yards and four touchdowns in the wins.
Even more impressive has been the fact that he played against UAB with a cast on his left hand, the result of a broken bone in his left (non-throwing) hand suffered against South Carolina that required seven screws.
Teammates told him to rest. He refused.
"I owe it to my teammates," Guarantano said Saturday night after throwing for 147 yards and a touchdown in the 30-7 win over the Blazers. "I don't like how I started the season, and I think the teammates deserve this from me, so if I'm able to help them in any way, I think I should."
That doesn't mean it was easy. He sat at Saturday's postgame news conference with the cast on his hand and his arm raised at 90 degrees, and when asked how much pain he was in, on a scale of 1 to 10, he said that "my dad would tell me to say 3 but my mom would tell me to say 11, so somewhere in the middle."
Offensive lineman Trey Smith — a former roommate of Guarantano — called the decision to play "a testament to who he is as a player and as a person."
"He's not letting it stop him at all," Smith said of the injury. "You see him out there; that hurts. There's no other way to put it. He's sitting here, taking all these snaps and taking hits and keeps going."
Guarantano wasn't even able to practice until Wednesday of last week, and the coaching staff went with Shrout at the beginning of Saturday's game because of the combination of the uncertainty surrounding Guarantano's ability to handle the ball (he said he had issues gripping the football) and the weather, with temperatures in the mid-40s around kickoff. Combine that with Shrout's performance against South Carolina after Guarantano's injury (122 yards passing, touchdown), and it was a simple decision.
But according to head coach Jeremy Pruitt, it was Guarantano's ability to "glue a lot of things together with the other players" that led to the switch after the Vols' first possession, which lasted three plays, gained only 1 yard and ended in a Brent Cimaglia field goal. The coaches were unhappy about a third-down pass Shrout threw across his body for nearly an interception.
It appears as though the move to the bench has been what Guarantano needed. He still has his faults and has had some less-than-memorable moments, but the combination of health and experience has the coaches believing he's the team's best option.
And if that's the case, he's ready to do whatever he can to continue helping the team win.
"I was always taught to have unwavering confidence," he said. "There have obviously been peaks and valleys, and at this point I'm back to normal. I feel good about how those guys are playing around me, and I feel good about how I'm playing. Obviously there's a lot to fix, a lot of room to get better, but my confidence is better and the team's confidence is better.
"I love my teammates. They've battled for me and I've battled for them many of times. It really means a lot for the coaches to keep their faith in me; we've had some rough patches at the beginning of the year, but I think we're really starting to pick it up. Even going through the injury, there was no option to sit down because they had so much faith in me and gave me so much love through time, and I couldn't do that to them."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.