In mid-May, the Tennessee Volunteers had 21 commitments for the 2021 recruiting cycle and a class that was No. 2 nationally behind Ohio State in the 247Sports.com team rankings.
On Wednesday, the start of college football's three-day early signing period, Tennessee announced 15 signees, including at least eight who are expected to be midyear enrollees. Third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt discussed 14 of the signees during a late-afternoon Zoom call, and then the Vols announced the inking of Byron Young, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound outside linebacker from Georgia Military College.
"Recruiting is a team effort, and everybody within our program really works hard at it," Pruitt said. "We do it every single day, and our players are probably our best recruiters that we have. It's been very unusual with the recruits not being able to come on campus. There have been lots of nights on Zoom calls, FaceTime and on the phone.
"With this particular class, it seems like to me that I know them and their families and everybody involved around them probably better than any group I've ever been associated with in recruiting."
Tennessee's commitment surge this spring came on the heels of the 2019 team that capped an 8-5 season with a win over Indiana in the Gator Bowl. This early signing period, however, arrived after last Saturday's 42-17 victory by the Vols over Vanderbilt ended a six-game slide that turned a 2-0 start into an eighth losing season in the last 13 years.
When asked whether this season's struggles affected this class, Pruitt said: "A lot of states have not played high school football, and some have. Some have played half a season. Some have started and stopped and started back again. I don't think it's had a whole lot of effect on it, to be honest. The reality of it is that the circumstances that most of these high school recruits have been involved with, they understand the circumstances."
Weakside defensive end Dylan Brooks of Roanoke, Alabama, inside linebacker Terrence Lewis of Miami, cornerback Damarius McGhee of Pensacola, Florida, and tight end Hudson Wolfe of Savannah, Tennessee, were four prominent reasons the Vols earned such a lofty ranking this spring. Brooks is still committed to Tennessee but did not sign on Wednesday, while Lewis recently decommitted from the Vols and is expected to sign elsewhere in February. McGhee and Wolfe recently decommitted as well and signed Wednesday with other Southeastern Conference schools, McGhee with LSU and Wolfe with Ole Miss.
Tennessee's early signees included three running backs: Cody Brown (6-0, 217) from the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn, Jaylen Wright (5-11, 200) of Durham, North Carolina, and Tiyon Evans (5-10, 225) of Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College. Evans is the nation's No. 1 junior college running back, according to 247Sports, though he didn't get to play this season due to the shutting down of NJCAA competition as a result of the coronavirus.
The Vols are set to return running backs Eric Gray, Jabari Small and Dee Beckwith from this season's team, and senior Ty Chandler could use his free year of eligibility allotted by the NCAA.
"You probably need six on your team," Pruitt said. "If you look at our roster right now, we didn't know what position some of these freshmen would play when they got here, but you want to make sure you've got running backs. This is a physical league, and if you run out of them, you're in trouble.
"Another thing is that they're usually the best athletes on their high school teams. They seem to touch the ball a whole lot, and these guys tend to have the ability to play lots of spots."
Tennessee's two highest-rated early signees are outside linebacker Aaron Willis of Midlothian, Virginia, and quarterback Kaidon Salter of Cedar Hill, Texas. The 6-2, 185-pound Salter is the nation's No. 6 dual threat in the 247Sports composite rankings.
"Before we got shut down, he came on an unofficial visit," Pruitt said. "We got to spend some time with him, and we really liked his makeup. We loved his family, and we loved his tape. He is a guy who is very athletic and has a lot of upside, and he's a guy who we're really excited about."
There is also this matter of Tennessee hosting a top-five team this Saturday, when Texas A&M is scheduled to visit Neyland Stadium. Vols junior offensive lineman Cade Mays has not played since suffering a lower-leg injury against Florida.
"I don't think he'll be available Saturday," Pruitt said. "He's working hard to get back, but I don't see it right now."
UT FOOTBALL SIGNEES
The University of Tennessee and coach Jeremy Pruitt announced 15 signees on Wednesday, the start of college football’s early signing period for the 2021 recruiting cycle. Listed with each player is his position, height, weight, hometown and previous school:
Trinity Bell: TE; 6-6; 265; Albertville, Ala.; Albertville.
Cody Brown: RB; 6-0; 217; Lilburn, Ga.; Parkview.
Miles Campbell: TE; 6-3; 235; Douglasville, Ga.; South Paulding.
Christian Charles: DB; 6-1; 185; Gainesville, Ga.; Chestatee.
KaTron Evans: DL; 6-4; 315; Chesapeake, Va.; St. Frances Academy.
Tiyon Evans: RB; 5-10; 225; Hartsville, S.C.; Hutchinson (Kansas) CC.
J’Marion Gooch: OL; 6-6; 330; Gallatin, Tenn.; Gallatin.
Amari McNeill: DL; 6-4; 285; Suwanee, Ga.; Peachtree Ridge.
Walker Merrill: WR; 6-1; 180; Brentwood, Tenn.; Brentwood.
Julian Nixon: ATH; 6-4; 225; Roswell, Ga.; Centennial.
William Parker: OL; 6-5; 305; Nashville; Pearl-Cohn.
Kaidon Salter: QB; 6-2; 185; Cedar Hill, Texas; Cedar Hill.
Aaron Willis: LB; 5-11; 210; Midlothian, Va.; Life Christian Academy.
Jaylen Wright: RB; 5-11, 200; Durham, N.C.; Southern.
Byron Young: OLB; 6-3, 240; Hemingway, S.C.; Georgia Military College.