Another preseason practice complete on Tuesday afternoon, Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt was asked about how close he was to naming at least a handful of starters.
Said Pruitt on a video released by the school: "We don't really have any starters anywhere." He quickly amended that by adding, "I think we've got a starting quarterback."
At the risk of overly hyping the potential for this Big Orange football season, if you've got a true starting quarterback, a player capable of producing winning plays in the Southeastern Conference — and Tennessee junior Jarrett Guarantano certainly would appear to fill that bill — everything else is much, much easier.
This isn't to say that the Volunteers currently appear to be serious contenders to claim the SEC East from Georgia, or Florida, or even Missouri. Especially when they must travel to both the Swamp and Mizzou and the Bulldogs would be a load if the game was played in Pruitt's back yard with his wife officiating.
But Guarantano should give the Big Orange Nation realistic hope of not only reaching a bowl for the first time in three years, but possibly winning as many as eight or nine games, depending on the bounce of the oblong ball and a much-needed break (no pun intended) from the injuries that have ravaged the program the last three or four years.
"We're ready to show the fans what we've got," Guranatano said a few days ago. "I'm going to play more athletic, scrambling more. Every aspect is going to be better. Play calling. Execution. All of it."
It wasn't like Guarantano wasn't pretty impressive a year ago. He completed over 62% of his passes behind a fairly average offensive line. He threw 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions, which was second best nationally in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Beyond that, he shattered the school record for consecutive passes without an interception by throwing 166 in a row without a pickoff, which easily broke Casey Clausen's previous school record of 143 set in 2003.
And that 62.2% completion rate? It's second only to Peyton Manning's career rate of 62.5%.
It's all been enough to have Pro Football Focus rank him the 21st best FBS quarterback in the land heading into the season opener against Georgia State on Aug. 31.
To quote PFF's assessment of Guarantano: "During the 2018 season, Guarantano's performance against Kentucky was the highest-graded single-game outing among returning quarterbacks (12-of-20 for 197 yards and two touchdowns). His marked improvement from 2017 to 2018 gives reason for hope of a big season in Knoxville this year."
But the biggest reason to feel good about Guarantano in 2019 might be the arrival of new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. All one needs to know about the impact Chaney can have on a quarterback's development is to return to his first stint with the Vols, which ran from 2009 through 2012. In that initial season under Lane Kiffin, Chaney was tasked with making a winning quarterback of Jonathan Crompton, who until that time had been pretty much of a bust over the course of his first four seasons in Knoxville, including a redshirt year as a freshman.
Crompton's totals over his first three seasons on the field were as follows: nine touchdowns, nine interceptions and 1,387 passing yards. His totals during his one season with Chaney? Try 27 touchdown passes, 13 interceptions and a whopping 2,800 aerial yards.
If Chaney could get Crompton into the NFL off that one season — he bounced around both the NFL and the Canadian Football league for six seasons — imagine what he could do for Guarantano.
But what the quarterback seems determined to do for himself is equally impressive. Guarantano spent much of the summer attending quarterback camps and studying the best NFL and college quarterbacks, everyone from professional stars Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers to college standouts Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama and Clemson star Trevor Lawrence.
"They talked about offseason training, leadership, eating right," he said. "I want to be the best quarterback in the country and win a lot of games. I don't care about stats. I care about wins and losses."
The losses have come with too much regularity for most Big Orange fans. They want wins and they want them now.
Said Pruitt late Tuesday: "Jarrett's had a really good fall camp. He just has to make sure he improves every day."
If Guarantano improves as much under Chaney as Crompton once did, he may or may not wind up as the best quarterback in the country, but the Vols are almost certain to win a lot of games this season.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.