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Handley High School athletics photo / Weakside defensive end Dylan Brooks of Handley High School in Roanoke, Ala., is among Tennessee's two-five star commitments for the 2021 recruiting cycle.

At the dawn of 2020, nobody could have foreseen how often "pandemic" and "social distancing" would be mentioned in the sports world.

Or how many "GBO" hashtags would occur, for that matter.

While everyone awaits a return to some normalcy amid this coronavirus outbreak, there is no doubting the success of Tennessee football recruiting during this unprecedented two-month stretch. Jeremy Pruitt and his staff have compiled 21 commitments for the 2021 recruiting cycle, with 14 of the Volunteers' 15 highest-rated prospects having posted an abbreviated "Go Big Orange" on Twitter during this NCAA-mandated dead period that prohibits campus visits and face-to-face contact between coaches and recruits.

"Tennessee has really maximized the impact of this given that there hasn't been sports going on," 247Sports.com college football recruiting analyst Ryan Callahan said last week. "Even the recruits aren't as busy as they normally would be, so they're watching Twitter more than they normally are and are seeing all this stuff about Tennessee. Normally, they would have been busy with spring football practice or whatever spring sports they were playing or with college visits.

"Everybody is seeing this Tennessee talk, because there is a much more captive audience than usual."

Another 247Sports recruiting analyst, Barton Simmons, recently labeled the Vols "the story of the spring."

There are plenty of unique aspects to Tennessee's recruiting haul, including the fact 19 are from outside the Volunteer State. The 19-2 divide between in-state and out-of-state commitments is even more profound than Tennessee's 2019 class headed by five-star offensive tackles Wanya Morris of Georgia and Darnell Wright of West Virginia, when Memphis running back Eric Gray was among just four in-state signees in an overall crop of 22.

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247Sports.com photo / Five-star outside linebacker Terrence Lewis of Hollywood, Florida, committed to Tennessee on April 30.

There is also the matter of Tennessee's 2021 class, provided defections in the months ahead are minimal, having room for only a few more.

The NCAA allows up to 25 signees per year who are considered "initial counters." A school can surpass that number with an early enrollee who can be counted in the previous year's class provided the previous year's class stayed below 25.

Penn State signed 27 players in the 2020 recruiting cycle, while Auburn and Texas A&M each signed 26. Tennessee had 23 signees.

"You can mess with the numbers a little, but there is really no way around the 25 limit these days," Callahan said. "Tennessee's class is not going to get that much bigger than it is now, but this is an unusual year for everybody, and it could still get very chaotic. If things open up at the end of the summer or whenever it may be, and kids get a chance to get back out there and make up for lost time, you could see more decommitments happen nationally.

"Tennessee has benefited from the fact that a lot of players like to make their decisions by the end of the summer, and since they can't visit anywhere right now, some are making their decisions on what they've seen so far."

The NCAA this past week extended the dead period, which had been set to expire May 31, through June 30.

Tennessee is currently second nationally to Ohio State in the 247Sports team rankings, with its crop broken down by two five-star commitments, seven four-star pledges and 12 three-star commitments. UT's average rating per prospect is 89.73, which is actually less than the 89.92 clip of its 2020 signing class that ranked 10th nationally.

When ranking classes by their average per prospect, Tennessee is seventh in the Southeastern Conference behind Georgia (94.54), Alabama (94.08), LSU (93.50), Auburn (90.71), Florida (90.67) and Texas A&M (90.47). The Crimson Tide picked up their fifth commitment Friday, receiving a nonbinding pledge from four-star safety Kaine Williams from New Orleans, while Auburn landed its eighth Sunday, snagging four-star quarterback Dematrius Davis of Houston.

"Tennessee needs to continue to improve its class if it wants to improve on last year's No. 10 finish," Callahan said. "Other teams will catch up in total commitments, and that's where the number of Tennessee's three-star commitments will be a factor, but the other side of that is some of Tennessee's guys could be ranked higher at the end of the year.

"We saw that last year with some of the guys they took early on. You can't bank on all of Tennessee's three-stars becoming four-stars, but I think Jeremy Pruitt and his staff do a really good job early of evaluating talent."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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