KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After getting a firsthand look at how a quarterback switch caused South Carolina to heat up late last season, Tennessee is hoping its own shake-up provides a similar spark.
South Carolina was 2-4 last season when the Gamecocks abandoned plans to redshirt Jake Bentley and moved the freshman to the top of their depth chart . Bentley rallied South Carolina to a Birmingham Bowl appearance as the Gamecocks won four of their last six regular-season games, including a 24-21 stunner over 13 1/2-point favorite Tennessee .
Tennessee now wants to flip the script, as redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano makes his first career start Saturday when the Volunteers (3-2, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) host the Gamecocks (4-2, 2-2). Guarantano will try to make the same kind of memories Bentley created when these two teams met last year.
“That definitely was a big win,” Bentley said. “I think, if anything, it gave me some confidence knowing that I didn’t skip a year for no reason.”
Tennessee didn’t need to worry about burning anyone’s redshirt when it reopened its quarterback competition. The Vols were only focused on awakening a dormant offense.
The Vols are coming off a 41-0 loss to No. 4 Georgia, which marked the first time they’d been shut out since 1994. Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Guarantano had “earned the opportunity” to start and noted that “we need to score points in this conference.”
In an ideal situation, Tennessee’s switch would turn out as well as South Carolina’s bold midseason move from a year ago.
Bentley has completed 63.2 percent of his career pass attempts to rank second in school history, behind only Connor Shaw. He was named the team’s co-MVP last season despite playing in only seven games. The sophomore has performed well enough this year to keep South Carolina above .500 even after losing star receiver/returner Deebo Samuel to a broken leg .
The decision to begin Bentley’s playing career ahead of schedule seems easy in retrospect, though it was considered quite a gamble at the time.
“It was tough,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “Didn’t know if it was the right decision. I didn’t want to put him in a situation where he wasn’t successful and then you worry about, from a confidence standpoint, trying to regain that confidence. It’s so delicate at that position, in my opinion. It’s gone very well. I’m glad he’s our quarterback.”
Tennessee believes Guarantano is ready for that kind of responsibility. He hadn’t performed particularly well while backing up Quinten Dormady through the first five games of the season.
Guarantano has gone 12 of 24 through the air for 54 yards with one touchdown pass and no interceptions. Although he’s regarded as a mobile quarterback, Guarantano has rushed for only 6 net yards on 10 carries.
Tennessee players and coaches have noted there’s plenty of blame to go around for the offense’s failure to score more than three points over its last six quarters. Tennessee receiver Josh Smith says the Vols’ quarterbacks unfairly are getting the brunt of the criticism.
“How do you want a kid to perform when you’ve got people booing on him?” Smith asked.
Nunzio Campanile, who coached Guarantano at Bergen Catholic High School in Oradell, New Jersey, believes the 6-foot-4, 200-pound redshirt freshman has the toughness to deal with any adversity that could arise this season.
“It’s one thing to be physically gifted, but if you’re going to play in that league – in the SEC – you’re going to take some shots,” Campanile said. “He was always just willing to stand in there, get back up and keep fighting. His senior year, he had a tough injury to his foot, and he came back to play in the state playoffs. Most kids in his situation with that bright of a future would have basically said, ‘I’ll just wait until college. I’ll protect my career.’ That was never Jarrett. That’s never the way he’s conducted himself. That’s one of the big reasons why he’ll be successful at the next level.”
Tennessee already has benefited from a midseason quarterback change once before during Jones’ tenure.
The Vols were 3-4 in 2014 when a torn labrum knocked Justin Worley out for the remainder of the season. Nathan Peterman played the first two series of Tennessee’s next game — a 34-20 loss to Alabama — before Joshua Dobbs took over.
Dobbs led Tennessee to a 7-6 finish that included a TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Iowa . Dobbs’ breakthrough performance came against South Carolina, as he rushed for 166 yards and threw for 301 yards while rallying Tennessee to a 45-42 overtime victory .
The Vols would love this quarterback change to work out just as effectively.
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.