/Under-the-radar players ready for a breakout season in 2019

Under-the-radar players ready for a breakout season in 2019

Pop quiz: Who had the lowest interception rate in the SEC last season?

You’re probably thinking Tua Tagovailoa, right? It’s a good guess, but it’s wrong. How about Jake Fromm? He was terrific for Georgia, right? Well, that’s the wrong answer, too.

The answer, you might be surprised to learn, is Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano, who threw only three picks in 246 attempts, despite playing behind one of the country’s worst offensive lines.

OK, one more quiz question. Who had the better season?

  • Player A: 59.4% completions, 7.8 yards per pass, 3.4-1 TD-to-INT ratio, 35% conversions on third-down throws

  • Player B: 62.2% completions, 7.8 yards per pass, 4-1 TD-to-INT ratio, 41% conversions on third-down throws

Pretty close, but you’d probably give the nod to Player B, right? Well, once again, that’s Guarantano. The other player is Oregon‘s Justin Herbert, widely considered one of the top QB prospects in college football.

Long story short, Guarantano was pretty darn good last season, even if you didn’t notice. And, of course, the reason you probably didn’t notice is because Tennessee was pretty bad.

That’s really the true benchmark for Guarantano, too. Adversity was all around him. He was sacked on 8.2% of his dropbacks, good for 106th in FBS. He ranked 119th in FBS with 39% of his throws coming under pressure. And his rushing offense ranked last in the SEC.

But when Guarantano wasn’t buried under the pass rush, he was developing into a premier QB. It was just a little tough to notice.

“He’s incredibly smart, and football comes fairly easy to him,” Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “He’s got really good arm strength, he’s tough, he’s a good athlete. He has a lot of really good intangibles to be a good quarterback.”

Not only did Guarantano survive the O-line struggles last year, he thrived. When pressured, he completed 57% of his passes and averaged 9 yards per attempt. No QB in the country was better. Few QBs needed to be.

The good news is Guarantano has more room to grow, and his role in the offense figures to expand, too. He threw only 12 touchdown passes last season, but doubling that number might be a good starting point for 2019.

The better news for Tennessee fans, however, is that Guarantano’s development could be matched by that offensive line in 2019. Pruitt has depth at long last, including five-star freshmen Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris, which could allow Guarantano to reach his potential.

Guarantano isn’t the only emerging star to fly under the radar last season, however. From the big-play back on a bad Big Ten team to the elite ACC QB who doesn’t play for Clemson, these guys don’t qualify as household names because their big seasons were obscured or upstaged, but they’re nevertheless poised to become stars in 2019.


2018 numbers: 128 carries for 1,085 yards and 9 touchdowns. His 8.48 yards per rush average ranked fourth among all FBS backs with at least 100 touches.

Comparison point: If Corbin had maintained his averages over the same number of carries as Clemson‘s Travis Etienne, he’d have racked up 1,725 rushing yards and 46 carries of 10 yards or more, which would’ve eclipsed the totals of the Tigers’ superstar RB.

Why he’s overlooked: Corbin’s numbers were hampered by a brutal Illinois offensive line. While Etienne, for example, had less than 8% of his rushes stopped for a loss or no gain, Corbin was stuffed at the line nearly 27% of the time. Look only at runs that crossed the line of scrimmage, and Corbin averaged 12.2 yards per carry, better than any other Power 5 back.

Coach’s take: Corbin’s evaded tackle rate (18.7%, per ESPN Stats & Information) was second only to Washington State‘s James Williams among backs with at least 100 carries last year, but that’s not what set him apart, according to Illinois coach Lovie Smith. “He has always had the ability to make defenders miss in a phone booth, but his hard work before the 2018 season seemed to give him an extra gear that led to many of his long runs and explosiveness. We continue to work on getting Reggie the ball in space, but he improved all season running between the tackles and showing he can get yardage in different ways.”