With quality reinforcements on the way for both sides of the ball, the question arises: Who is getting more help … offense or defense? What follows is one man's opinion, based on a position-by-position analysis of the 32 signees:
QUARTERBACK: With all four scholarship QBs returning for 2014, Tennessee chose not to sign a one in this class. Obviously, a high-profile quarterback signee increases a program's visibility but ask yourself this: Why have five guys on scholarship to play a position at which, barring injury, one guy will play virtually every snap of every game?
RUNNING BACK: The Vols mopped up, landing four-stars Jalen Hurd and Derrell Scott, plus three-star Treyvon Paulk. Scout rates them the third-best running back haul in all of college football. The Big Orange ranks behind only Georgia and Oklahoma, two schools known for producing NFL running backs. For what it's worth, SEC rivals LSU (fifth in Scout's ratings), Mississippi State (10th) and Auburn (11th) also landed some quality rushers.
"This is a physical league," Vol head coach Butch Jones explained, "and you need to play a number of running backs. To be able to bring in those three individuals – to bring competition, to bring depth – was obviously critical. That's one area we felt we obviously needed to improve on."
WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END: Two four-stars — JUCO standout LaVon Pearson and high school phenom Josh Malone — will challenge for starting jobs at wideout from Day 1. Three-stars Neiko Creamer and Vic Wharton also project to help immediately at a position that was alarmingly weak last fall. Incredibly, the Vols also signed two four-star tight ends rated among the top five in America at their position — No. 3 Daniel Helm and No. 5 Ethan Wolf. Scout lists Tennessee's haul No. 5 in a combined wide receiver/tight end ranking, trailing only Ohio State, FSU, LSU and Clemson. SEC rivals Texas A&M (11), Auburn (13) and Missouri (15) also recruited well in this category.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The Vols suffered a setback when three-star high school standout Orlando Brown, considered an academic risk, reneged on a commitment to the Big Orange and signed with Oklahoma. Still, the Vols' O-line haul includes a four-star JUCO who is a virtual lock to start the 2014 opener at left tackle, Dontavius Blair. The Vols also got a three-star (Coleman Thomas) and a three-star guard prospect (Ray Raulerson). With all five starters in the 2013 O-line departing, Tennessee was in desperate need of help in the blocking front. Getting Blair was huge but losing Brown was big, too. The Vols did not crack Scout's top 15 in this category.
On a positive note, one or more of the eight defensive-line prospects Tennessee signed may help bolster the O-line haul. Borrowing a strategy used with great success by Vol predecessor John Majors, Jones signed several linemen who excel at both blocking and tackling.
"We like individuals who are multi-faceted, which means they can either play offensive line or defensive line," the head man said. "We know that there is a shortage of big bodies in our football program right now, so that was a point of emphasis. To be able to attract the type of individuals that we were able to is very pleasing but now it is up to us to develop them."
DEFENSIVE LINE: The Big Orange went all-in, signing eight D-line prospects en route to a No. 6 national ranking at the position from Scout. The only schools rated higher are Texas A&M, FSU, Notre Dame, Alabama and Miami. Showing why SEC defenses routinely rank among the NCAA's best, however, is the fact Auburn (7), Florida (8), Kentucky (10), LSU (12), Georgia and South Carolina (tied for 13) and Ole Miss (15) also cracked Scout's top 15 in D-line signings. In other words, 10 of the top 15 defensive line hauls in college football belong to SEC programs.
Tennessee did especially well at end, getting four-stars Dewayne Hendix and Derek Barnett, plus three-stars Joseph Henderson and Dimarya Mixon. The tackle group consists of four-star Charles Mosley, plus three-stars Michael Sawyers, Jashon Robertson and JUCO Owen Williams.
Jones said bolstering the defensive front was a high priority from "the get-go," adding: "The one thing we needed to improve was size and big bodies."
LINEBACKER: Tennessee locked up four heralded prospects to earn a No. 6 national rating from Scout, trailing only Bama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Clemson and UCLA. At No. 9, LSU is the only other SEC team to make the top 15. The Vol haul is a truly imposing one. Four-stars Dillon Bates, Gavin Bryant and JUCO Christopher Weatherd should play immediately, and three-star Jakob Johnson projects to find a role also. Elliot Berry, who has been timed in the sub-4.5 range, is a three-star prospect that figures to grow into a speedy outside linebacker.
SECONDARY: Given how short on both talent and speed the 2013 Vol secondary was, an upgrade in this area was absolutely vital. Mission accomplished. Safeties Todd Kelly and Evan Berry are four-stars. So is cornerback D'Andre Payne. The Big Orange also reeled in three-star safety RaShaan Gaulden and three-star corner Emmanuel Moseley to round out a DB haul that Scout ranks No. 2 nationally behind Southern Cal.
Cortez McDowell is a four-star that could slide up to outside linebacker if he doesn't pass on football for pro baseball.
The rest of the SEC isn't far behind, however, as Florida checks in at No. 3, followed by LSU (6), South Carolina (7), Bama (8), Auburn (9) and Kentucky (13).
So, which side of the ball is getting the most help at Tennessee, offense or defense?
You can make a strong case for the defense, since the Vols have six holes to fill in their front seven. Most high school D-linemen need a year in a college weight room before they're strong enough for the rigors of SEC trench warfare, however. That suggests JUCO transfer Williams has a good shot to start, with most of the freshmen likely to jockey for backup spots.
Although 2013's starting outside linebackers are gone, the Vols have a heir-apparent at one spot. Curt Maggitt, a starter in 2011 and 2012 who missed 2013 due to a knee problem, is a virtual cinch to claim one of the vacant OLB berths. The heralded newcomers should battle converted safety Jalen Reeves-Maybin for the other outside job.
Tennessee returns both of 2013's starting safeties, both starting corners and both guys who shared the nickel-back role (JaRon Toney, Devaun Swafford). Unless one of the rookies can unseat Toney and Swafford, the newcomers project to fill backup roles in 2014.
Given all of the above, it appears that Tennessee signed more immediate-impact players on offense. Hurd and Scott will seriously challenge rising senior Marlin Lane for first-team duties at running back. Pearson and Malone project to be among the most productive wide receivers. Don't be surprised if Helm and Wolf each catch more passes in 2014 than 2013 starter Brendan Downs did last fall (12). And, as noted earlier, Blair is a virtual lock to start at one of the tackle spots.
Closing comment: No matter which side of the ball improved the most, Tennessee's talent level is going to be a whole lot better across the board in 2014.