At some point in the not too distant future, quarterback Quinten Dormady will probably be given the keys to the Tennessee offense for good.
After Jarrett Guarantano’s debut in the Vols’ 42-7 win against Indiana State on Saturday, it’s obvious why coach Butch Jones has been dragging this thing out as long as he has. The phenomenally talented redshirt freshman deserved much, much better than 4 completions on 12 attempts on Saturday, as his receivers dropped some fine-looking passes.
Gurantano’s throws on intermediate routes sizzle and he puts the sort of arc and touch on the deep ball that most college quarterbacks take years to create. If he has any less speed or agility than Joshua Dobbs did, there’s not that much of a difference. He is without question the Vols’ quarterback of the future, so it makes sense for Jones to do everything in his power to keep Guarantano engaged and in a competitive state of mind.
But it’s equally obvious at this point why Dormady played the entire Georgia Tech game, why he started and got most of the snaps against Indiana State, and why Guarantano didn’t enter the game until the Vols were safely up by a pair of touchdowns.
It’s Dormady’s offense. The only question involves the right time to declare it so.
Guarantano may have more raw ability than Dormady, but the gap is not nearly so great that Dormady’s experience doesn’t matter. He has arm strength, touch and athleticism, too, and two years as Dobbs’ understudy have slowed down the game for him.
Even though he’s clearly still learning how to be a starting quarterback, there’s a significant difference between taking that step and playing one’s first college football game, and that right now is exactly the difference between Dormady and Guarantano.
That being said, if this is Dormady’s offense, the Vols need him to become a lot better, and fast, particularly if Gainesville avoids Hurricane Irma and Tennessee does, in fact, have to play Florida this week.
Despite Dormady’s experience advantage over Guarantano, there still is a nervousness to the junior’s game. On Saturday, he found himself bobbling snaps, shaking up the timing of the zone read option. Against Indiana State, that wasn’t a problem, especially on the Carlin Fils-aime touchdown run when the sophomore simply ran over a defensive back at the goal line. But in the SEC, those bobbles turn into tackles for loss, if they don’t turn into fumbles.
Dormady only has 1 interception so far, but it was a particularly ugly one. He thought he had slot receiver Brandon Johnson wide open in the back of the end zone in the third quarter on Saturday, and admitted he never saw Indiana State cornerback Rondell Green “fall off” the route, saying he knew shortly after he let the ball go that he realized he’d made a mistake.
Those mistakes happen, they can be learning experiences and it speaks well for Dormady that he was able to immediately diagnose the problem. It helps that he had a 28-7 lead, and therefore, a margin for error.
But in their first two SEC games against Florida this week and Georgia on Sept. 30 — games that will, as always, largely define the Vols’ season — he will have no margin for error, and he will be asked to lead an offense that, while talented, is mostly in his same boat in terms of experience.
Junior John Kelly has had a superstar look to him the first two weeks, but he’s in his first season as an every-down back. Sophomore Marquez Callaway has turned 3 of his 5 receptions this season into touchdowns, but he had 1 reception all of last season. Johnson, a sophomore, has also been impressive, but with junior Jauan Jennings out with a broken wrist, the only available Vols receiver who caught more than 15 passes last season is tight end Ethan Wolf. The offensive line is the only place where the Vols have a group of players who have been tested, but that unit has already had to shift extensively and it is relying on a (deservedly blue-chip) freshman in Trey Smith.
There is enough athletic ability there to make for a potent offense if the pieces work together. Whether it happens will depend on Dormady.