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Front Page - Friday, March 24, 2017

The winner isn’t always a winner in UT QB battles

The time has come to write a new chapter of Tennessee Vols football.

Which quarterback is going to write it?

With spring practice unfolding, it looks like a two-man race between junior Quentin Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano – not necessarily in that order.

Spring practice is a time for competition at all positions, but there hasn’t been this kind of helmet-to-helmet duel for UT’s starting quarterback job in a number of years. Josh Dobbs was the clear choice entering the 2015 and ’16 seasons. Before that, it was Justin Worley. Before him, it was Tyler Bray.

In the spring of 2009, new arrival Lane Kiffin opened things up between Jonathan Crompton and B.J. Coleman. Coleman had a strong spring but Crompton ultimately retained the starting spot.

While all eyes are on Dormady and Guarantano, it’ll be interesting to see if Sheriron Jones, another former four-star recruit, can make any headway. Jones has been a non-factor thus far in his college career.

It has become fashionable in recent years to go young at quarterback in the SEC, which bodes well for Guarantano. Last season, freshman Jalen Hurts was All-SEC at Alabama. Freshman Jacob Eason emerged as the starter at Georgia, as did Jake Bentley at South Carolina.

Guarantano also should take heart in the fact that a number of redshirt-freshman quarterbacks have prospered in recent years.

Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston won the Heisman Trophy as redshirt freshmen.

Marcus Mariota emerged as a star in his redshirt freshman season at Oregon. Last year, Southern Cal won nine of its last 10 games after redshirt freshman Sam Darnold took over at quarterback.

There’s a lot to like about both Dormady and Guarantano. Dormady, who has played sparingly in his first two college seasons, clearly has a big-time arm.

He also has benefitted from getting second-team reps in practice. Plus, coaches say he has a strong command of the offense.

Many Vols fans gravitate to Guarantano, perhaps because he is such an unknown commodity.

He has yet to play in a college game.

Since the media are not allowed to view the majority of practice, reports of his skills are sketchy at best. That makes him even more of an intriguing prospect.

The book on Guarantano coming out of high school at Bergen Catholic in Oradell, New Jersey, is that he is a freakish athlete who runs well and can make all the throws. Assuming new offensive coordinator Larry Scott runs a similar system to the previous scheme, Guarantano would appear to be a good fit.

Although UT coach Butch Jones has repeatedly said the offensive system can be adapted to fit the skill set of any quarterback, it is clear that things work better when the quarterback is a running threat.

There’s a reason Dobbs put up such big numbers in the running game over the last two seasons.

Guarantano has embraced the competition for the job. He spent spring break working with quarterback whisperer George Whitfield in San Diego, participating in drills with other college quarterbacks like Brandon Wimbush of Notre Dame and Kenny Hill of TCU. The quarterbacks worked on the finer points of passing while also spending time in video study.

It figures to be quite a battle between Dormady and Guarantano. Don’t be surprised if no starter is named by the end of spring practice, which would lead to more competition in off-season work as well as preseason camp.

Something else to keep in mind: Just because one player wins the starting job for the opening game doesn’t mean he’ll keep it.

Go back to 1989. Sterling Henton edged out Andy Kelly in the preseason and even led the Vols to a 24-6 upset victory at sixth-ranked UCLA, but Kelly took over as starter at midseason.

Sometimes it’s a freshman who comes of age at some point in his first college season. That happened in 2000 when A.J. Suggs was the opening-day starter but Casey Clausen eventually stepped in and established himself as one of the most underrated quarterbacks in UT history.

In 2004, everything was set up for transfer C.J. Leak to win the job, but he had a series of unimpressive scrimmages. Freshmen Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer wound up splitting snaps before Ainge earned the full-time job.

Junior college transfer Matt Simms quarterbacked the Vols for the first half of the 2010 season before Bray, a freshman, supplanted him.

Injuries can play a role as well. Peyton Manning didn’t become a starter until first Jerry Colquitt, then Todd Helton, got hurt in 1994.

It took injuries to Worley and Nate Peterman for Dobbs to become the starter in 2013 and ’14.

As far as Dormady and Guarantano are concerned, the more competition the better. You don’t want one of them to win the job by default because the other underperformed.

There have been times in the past when UT could win with a game manager at quarterback. Rick Clausen won three of the four games he started in 2004 while seldom throwing the ball downfield.

But this Vols team does not have that luxury. They are breaking in a new featured running back as well as some new faces at wide receiver.

Because of that, and other factors, UT needs a playmaker at quarterback, not a game manager.

It’s up to Dormady and Guarantano to sort things out.

David Climer is a veteran sports writer, living in Nashville, who covers a variety of college and professional sports in Tennessee and the Southeast. He is retired from The Tennessean. Reach him at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.