KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Butch Jones is optimistic that quarterback Jarrett Guarantano will be healthy enough to play Saturday when the Volunteers visit Missouri.
But the redshirt freshman may be leading an offense that’s not even close to full strength.
Guarantano had his right ankle heavily taped for the first half of last weekend’s 24-10 victory over Southern Mississippi . He left the game for three snaps in the second quarter and then sat out the entire second half.
“Jarrett Guarantano is much, much better today,” Jones said Monday. “We would list him as probable.”
Jones also said injuries would knock out safety/kick returner Evan Berry and wide receiver Latrell Williams for the remainder of the season. Berry, the 2015 Football Bowl Subdivision leader in kickoff return average , played just three games this year. Williams hadn’t played since the season opener.
Guarantano’s health is critical because of Tennessee’s lack of depth at quarterback.
Quinten Dormady, who lost his starting spot to Guarantano last month, has undergone season-ending shoulder surgery. That leaves Guarantano and freshman Will McBride as Tennessee’s only available scholarship quarterbacks.
McBride hadn’t played all year until Guarantano’s injury caused him to make his college debut against Southern Mississippi. McBride was 1 of 8 for 13 yards but did manage to avoid any turnovers.
“All along, we’ve expected Will McBride to have to play at some point in time, especially with Quinten’s surgery,” Jones said. “We’ve really worked hard on him with his reps in practice, but also in the meetings and him understanding there’s a lot of football left to be played and you’re one snap away.”
Tennessee’s players say they’re confident McBride can succeed if Guarantano is unavailable.
“He’s like a sponge out there, especially when we’re at practice,” running back John Kelly said after the Southern Mississippi game. “He’s just soaking it in, all that information we give him.”
Guarantano and McBride have both taken care of the ball effectively, as Guarantano has just one turnover in four starts. But they’ve also struggled to get an injury-riddled offense to move the ball.
Heading into Saturday’s game with Missouri (4-5, 1-4 SEC), Tennessee (4-5, 0-5) hasn’t thrown a single touchdown pass in its last 22 quarters. The Vols’ last TD pass came on Dormady’s 8-yard completion to Tyler Byrd in the second quarter of a 17-13 victory over Massachusetts on Sept. 23.
Guarantano’s lone touchdown pass of the season came Sept. 9 in the final minute of a 42-7 blowout of Football Championship Subdivision program Indiana State.
Injuries have decimated Tennessee’s offense all year.
Tennessee’s top returning receiver was Jauan Jennings, who suffered a wrist injury in a season-opening victory over Georgia Tech that knocked him out for the remainder of the year. Marquez Callaway had three touchdown catches in the first two games but hasn’t reached the end zone since and is questionable for the Missouri game after getting hurt last week.
Injuries have hindered the offensive line so much that Tennessee had to burn the redshirt of freshman Riley Locklear last week just to have six available linemen. The right side of Tennessee’s line last week included two redshirt freshmen — one making his first career start (Ryan Johnson) and the other making his college debut (Devante Brooks).
The injury issues aren’t going away. Jones said tackle Marcus Tatum won’t play against Missouri and tackles Brett Kendrick and Drew Richmond are both questionable. Those three tackles have combined for 18 starts this season but were unavailable last week.
Follow Steve Megargee at www.twitter.com/stevemegargee