The first half of Tennessee's football season ended with an erratic offense that produced just 24 points and suffered eight turnovers in the past 10 quarters.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was responsible for five of those miscues — three interceptions and two fumbles — during that struggling stretch, but it's Guarantano whom the Volunteers will be moving forward with during the stretch run. The start to Tennessee's second half of this 10-game Southeastern Conference schedule occurs Saturday night at Arkansas.
During his appearance on Wednesday's SEC teleconference, Vols third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt discussed what has kept Guarantano in front of redshirt sophomore J.T. Shrout, sophomore Brian Maurer and freshman Harrison Bailey.
"He understands our expectations, and he helps us get in the right plays," Pruitt said. "In our offense, we put a lot on our quarterback to make sure that we're in the right plays when it's a run or a pass. One thing about being a quarterback is how you lead the other 10 guys on the field. There are times you have to alert other players about a star coming on a blitz, or they stem a front and you have the right people pointed out in the run game.
"He's done a really nice job of doing that, and with our younger quarterbacks, the more that they get these looks in practice, it helps in their development."
Guarantano has completed 83 of 135 passes (61.5%) for 914 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions. In his most recent outing, the 48-17 loss to Alabama on Oct. 24, the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder completed 13 of 24 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns. His efficiency rating of 128.6 ranks ninth among SEC quarterbacks this season.
"He's done a nice job, in my opinion, of helping lead our quarterback room and helping these guys understand, so he's been a very good teammate," Pruitt said.
When asked about the race for Guarantano's backup, Pruitt said, "It's pretty open."
Tennessee had a significant spike in COVID-19 cases when players took several days off from voluntary workouts for the Fourth of July break.
The first break during this season packed a surprise as well.
"We tested on Sunday and, unfortunately, had a few false positives," Pruitt said, "so we had some guys who had to miss Monday's practice. They're back now, and I think that's happened all over everywhere, but that was the first time that had happened to us."
Pruitt said after Wednesday's practice that the Vols are coronavirus-free heading into Thursday's final testing of the week.
The Vols overcame a 1-for-11 showing on third-down conversions to topple South Carolina 31-27 in the season opener, but that continues to be a concern.
"We need to be in manageable third downs," Pruitt said. "It's much easier to convert a third-and-1 than it is a third-and-9, so winning first and second down is important. The other thing that goes into that is creating explosive plays.
"When you start having to convert third downs over and over and over again, the odds are against you as far as putting long drives together."
Tennessee is just 18-of-69 on third-down conversions for a 26.1% success rate. That clip ranks last among SEC programs and 97th out of the 103 FBS teams that have played so far this season.
Junior inside linebacker Jeremy Banks has battled a high-ankle sprain since the Oct. 17 loss to Kentucky, but Pruitt believes he will play some Saturday. Pruitt said junior guard Jerome Carvin (turf toe) is the healthiest he's been since the Oct. 3 game against Missouri.