KNOXVILLE — Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Jarrett Guarantano sat at the podium Saturday night with a smile on his face.
There's no way that would have been the case had the redshirt junior been made available for interviews a week earlier, when his fumble on fourth-and-goal at the Alabama 1-yard line was returned 100 yards for a touchdown by Trevon Diggs in the fourth quarter of the Crimson Tide's 35-13 home win over the Vols.
After that game, Tennessee players and coaches said Guarantano having run a play other than the one called was the result of a miscommuncation. Angry Vols fans, though, attacked him on social media.
"Get out of Tennessee and never come back."
"Leave. I'll pay your way. Pack up and leave."
"Please quit Football and never return."
"please go away. We literally hate you and your family. You suck. You're awful. I can't believe you're on a scholarship to play American Football at Tennessee. Congrats."
"Don't deserve to take a snap for this team. You're a cry baby that couldn't lead a pack a geese."
Some were worse than that. Guarantano didn't let it bother him, though. Speaking after Saturday's 41-21 home win over South Carolina, he told reporters that after the loss at Alabama he had apologized to coaches and teammates and asked for forgiveness for his late-game actions.
He actually made light of it when asked what the past week had been like.
"Everything's been going pretty smooth. That's about it. I've gotten some good advice on social media," he said.
It capped a day of redemption for Guarantano, who passed for 229 yards and two touchdowns against the Gamecocks to help Tennessee improve to 3-5 overall and 2-3 in Southeastern Conference play heading into Saturday's 7 p.m. homecoming game against the University of Alabama at Birmingham (7-1), which will be televised on ESPNU.
The 6-foot-4, 213-pound Guarantano, a former longtime starter who was relegated to backup duty when freshman Brian Maurer was elevated to the top spot, was one of three Tennessee players who spent time at quarterback Saturday after Maurer was ruled out due to having concussions in back-to-back games against Mississippi State and Alabama.
Guarantano's touchdown passes went to senior Jauan Jennings, who was the first player to take a snap for the Vols against the Gamecocks. On Guarantano's second touchdown pass, the right-handed passer took a big hit on the release and had to leave the game after breaking a bone in his left hand. Redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout — who took over behind center after Jennings — also played well, throwing for 122 yards and the first touchdown of his Tennessee career.
Not surprisingly, Guarantano has been a lightning rod for fans' frustration due to his play this season. He struggled in losses to Georgia State and BYU, and he was ineffective in the Vols' loss to Florida on Sept. 21, which led to him losing his job to Maurer. Despite not starting, he has played in every game since and — notwithstanding what happened at Alabama — performed well.
"Just absolute class, first and foremost," said junior offensive lineman Trey Smith, Guarantano's roommate two years ago. "Resilience, in my opinion. Had a lot of outside pressure bringing him down, bringing him down, but he didn't let it affect his game, he didn't let it affect his work ethic. I'm talking about putting in late hours in the film room. That's basically my brother.
"Watching him handle it and watching him handle it with so much class and grace, it's humbling to say the least, but he's handled it like a man and he's put in all the extra work and it's having benefits on the field."
Guarantano said he has been receiving text messages from his cousins imploring him to smile more. Despite the injury Saturday, despite the week he had endured, that's exactly what he did.
"It's tough, but you rely on your religion," Guarantano said. "That brings a lot of life to me, and that's all I can ask for, man. I mean, I'm living, I'm with my guys every day. It's been a fun ride, and I'm excited for it to keep going and to get to a bowl game."