Tennessee football: Jarrett Guarantano’s Maxwell hopes hinge on Vols OL

AUBURN, AL - OCTOBER 13: Defensive lineman Derrick Brown #5 of the Auburn Tigers looks to block a pass from quarterback Jarrett Guarantano #2 of the Tennessee Volunteers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on October 13, 2018 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images)
AUBURN, AL - OCTOBER 13: Defensive lineman Derrick Brown #5 of the Auburn Tigers looks to block a pass from quarterback Jarrett Guarantano #2 of the Tennessee Volunteers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on October 13, 2018 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images) /

Tennessee football quarterback Jarrett Guarantano is on the Maxwell Award Watch List. The QB’s chances to win depend on the Volunteers’ offensive line.

The news was actually a bit of a surprise. Jarrett Guarantano certainly has potential, but nobody should have expected him to be on the Maxwell Award Preseason Watch List on Monday. After all, Tennessee football was 5-7 last year and outside of the top 100 offensively.

Sure, Guarantano had 12 touchdowns to 3 interceptions, averaged nearly 8 yards per attempt, and completed over 62 percent of his passes. But he only threw for 1,907 yards, and Tyson Helton put a heavy focus on his efficiency over his arm.

So what’s the explanation? Well, the only thing we can say is that the people making the watch list were looking at the advanced data that props up Guarantano. And when you look at that, there’s no question about his potential.

As ESPN’s David Hale wrote, Guarantano had the lowest interception rate in the SEC last year. He also has better numbers than Oregon Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert on yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio and third down conversions (41 percent to 35 percent). And Herbert is a highly touted college player this year.

Meanwhile, he had the best completion percentage in the nation, at 57 percent, and averaged nine yards per attempt when under pressure. When you take all that into account, Guarantano brought much more to the table with his stats than just being an effective game manager.

At the same time, Guarantano has a great supporting cast. Ty Chandler is the most versatile running back the Vols have had in a while. Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer is an elite receiving rotation, and Dominick Wood-Anderson has a ton of potential as a receiving tight end.

What was up with the offense, then? Well, it’s no secret that Tennessee football was horrendous on the offensive line. Guarantano threw under pressure 39 percent of the time and was sacked on over 8 percent of his dropbacks, numbers that over 100 starting quarterbacks didn’t have to deal with. He also eventually struggled a bit more late in the year after getting hit so much.

This also explains why the Vols had the worst rushing offense in the SEC despite using elite backs like Chandler and solid ones like Tim Jordan. Their line couldn’t get anything going. So if Guarantano is going to win the Maxwell, it will come down to that specific unit.

Given his advanced stats, Guarantano has the potential to truly compete for the Maxwell Award. When you combine it with his options at receiver and his support from solid running backs, he is loaded with weapons provided everybody stays healthy. Chandler and Jordan are elite pass-catchers took giving Guarantano even more options.

Now, with Jim Chaney running the offense, Guarantano should see his stats shoot up as well. Chaney loves to utilize whatever weapons he has, and given his personnel this year, he’s likely to air it out a lot similar to what he did with Tyler Bray in 2012 rather than what he did with the Georgia Bulldogs the last two years.

Because of that, not only will Guarantano have lots of weapons, he’ll have lots of opportunities to shine and make big plays. So what’s going to hold him back? It will be that offensive line, and that will determine what he does this year.

light. Related Story. Vols 10 best seasons coming off a losing record

A look at Football Outsiders’ advanced stats shows just how bad the line was last year. The Vols had the worst run-blocking line in the nation, and their pass-blocking was in the bottom 15. It was understandable when you look at the situation.

More from Vols Football

Tennessee football was switching to a pro-style, most of their line missed the spring due to injuries in 2017, their planned starting center, Brandon Kennedy, suffered a season-ending injury in the opener, and their best lineman, Trey Smith, had his season cut short due to health issues. Nobody could overcome those issues.

However, things got a bit worse in the offseason with Drew Richmond transferring, Chance Hall retiring and Smith still not being healthy. The good news, though, is Pruitt brought in an elite class of offensive linemen.

One of them, Wanya Morris, already proved himself in the spring and will likely be in the rotation. Five-star Darnell Wright figures to play immediately as well. With Kennedy being healthy, most of the returners actually playing in the spring, the unit figures to be much better.

Should they remain consistent, Guarantano has a great chance to compete for that Maxwell Award. Again, he has the talent. He also has the weapons. All he needs is the protection. And given what he did last year against the Auburn Tigers, that protection just needs to be serviceable.

Projecting the Vols' 2019 2-deep depth chart. dark. Next

Expected improvement on the offensive line combined with all the other advantages Guarantano has is likely why he was placed on the watch list. Given what he showed with a very short stick last year, it’s not crazy to put him on here. All Jeremy Pruitt has to hope for is that his line takes a dramatic leap. If Guarantano does so as well, his potential is through the roof.