KNOXVILLE — Tennessee is trying to put the finishing touches on a highly-touted 2014 recruiting class.
The Volunteers also face the challenge of replacing their entire offensive line and six departed senior defensive linemen.
Yet the question mark at the quarterback position is probably the program's biggest offseason storyline.
The competition for next season, again a four-man race between rising senior Justin Worley, rising sophomores Nathan Peterman and Josh Dobbs and redshirted freshman Riley Ferguson, is already underway.
"All even, starting from ground zero," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Thursday afternoon during his first meeting with the media since a 27-14 win at Kentucky completed a 5-7 season.
"Every position is all even, starting at ground zero. You're responsible for creating your football identity, and because some individuals may have had success in the past, that doesn't guarantee success in the future. You have to earn everything that you get, and it's by a body of work over time.
"That position, just like every other position, will be up for competition."
Injuries and an early coaching gamble dictated the Vols using three quarterbacks last season, and Ferguson, who has the best arm of the quartet, is the only one who's yet to take a college snap.
Worley started the season's first three games, was benched in favor of Peterman for the Florida game, reassumed his starting spot after Peterman's disastrous half in Gainesville and subsequent thumb injury and ultimately saw his season end early with a similar thumb injury at Alabama in October.
With Peterman still in a cast and Ferguson gimpy with a broken tibia, Tennessee turned to Dobbs to start the season's final four games, and even he battled thumb and thigh injuries in the season finale.
Though an inexperienced receiving corps didn't help, the Vols' passing game struggled mightily all season and finished with less than 2,000 yards for just the third time since 1982.
Worley, who has resumed throwing the ball after his surgery, was the leader throughout the quarterback competition last season, but at least now the race appears to be more wide open than it was last season.
Regardless of which quarterback ultimately wins the job in what Jones said will be an "ongoing process," the Vols will need better play at the position come 2014.
"The quarterback should be the example on a football team," Jones said. "They're the equivalent of a coach when they're on the field. It's their football program.
"We talk about consistency in performance, and that's extremely critical at every position, but it's really critical in winning football games at the quarterback position."
Trio to transfer
Jones said Tennessee has granted receiver Paul Harris, tailback Tom Smith and defensive back Tino Thomas releases from their scholarships, so the trio will transfer out of the program.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Harris enrolled last January as a four-star prospect, but he struggled in practice, battled a leg injury and caught just one pass in five games this season.
Smith, a third-year sophomore, registered 24 carries for 129 yards over three seasons and played on a couple of special teams units this season.
Thomas, who grayshirted as part of the 2011 signing class and joined the Vols last January, also played mostly special teams and struggled to find a role in the secondary.
The Vols continued their strong academic performance under Jones.
The coach said the team's fall semester grade-point average was the second-highest of any such term since the program began recording that data a little more than a decade ago. Jones said 40 players registered a GPA of 3.0 or higher and no players were academically ineligible.
Jones praised Joe Scogin, hired as the director of the Thornton Center, Tennessee's hub for student-athlete academics, for his work and again pointed to Tennessee digging itself out of a potentially disastrous Academic Progress Rate hole.
The Vols were in danger of incurring sanctions, particularly a bowl ban, next season due to low APR scores, but overcame that hurdle in what Jones dubbed, "the greatest accomplishment in Tennessee football."
"I still don't think that gets the recognition that it's deserved," he added. "It's really helped us in this recruiting class. It's a monumental feat. It's a tribute to everyone who helped us -- our administration, Joe Scogin, the entire Thornton staff, our coaches, our players -- to be able to put that negative piece of recruiting aside.
"I said it last year, a little over a year ago, is before you can win on the field, you have to win off the field, and we're starting to win off the field."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...