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Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / UTC football coach Rusty Wright, left, shakes hands with Tennessee counterpart Jeremy Pruitt before their teams' 2019 game in Knoxville.

And for his next bit of recruiting magic, University of Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt has found a loophole in the NCAA rule book that will allow him to bring back quarterback Peyton Manning for one more year.

OK, so we kid. Even Pruitt isn't getting a ghost year of eligibility for Manning.

But that doesn't mean that what the third-year boss of the Big Orange is doing in putting together what just might become the nation's top recruiting class by the early signing period in December isn't hugely impressive.

Just ask University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Rusty Wright, who has watched the Volunteers already receive nonbinding verbal commitments from 21 highly coveted players, including 19 out-of-state prospects, which is more than any other Football Bowl Subdivision program has total commitments.

"It's crazy," Wright said Monday afternoon. "They've done a tremendous job. I'm sure it's a credit to a lot of legwork. They probably had a good feeling about all this before (the coronavirus pandemic) started."

Before. This. Started. Though it may actually seem longer, the absence of sports, and life, as we've long known them started two months ago.

March 12 was when the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament and pretty much everything else involving gatherings of more than one were canceled or postponed until further notice.

But if UT football recruiting under Pruitt has justifiably made for powerful and positive headlines throughout Big Orange Country the past couple of weeks, his is not the only college staff in the Volunteer State working daily, if not hourly, to improve.

"It's really all we do now," Wright said. "You can call them once a month for both April and May, but (the recruits) can call you as often as they like. And since juniors can accept text messages, you can text them as often as you want. (Sophomores have more restrictions.) You just can't have any physical contact with them. So we can't visit them, and they can't visit us."

Wright is concerned over what the high school players at the center of all this attention think.

"I spoke at the AFCA (American Football Coaches Association) convention about this very thing," Wright said. "About how much these kids are being bombarded. And because of cellphones, high school coaches are often out of it. Used to be, you went through the high school coach to reach the kid. Now you just call the kid directly.

"And since the coronavirus thing started, it's gotten worse. I talked to a coach today (Monday) who has a player who's already had 13 FaceTime chats today. That's a lot of time spent sitting in one place talking to coaches."

Never outworked, Wright and his staff have texted every high school coaching staff in Tennessee to let them know those schools are important to them and that UTC is ready to help them any way they can.

This is not to say this is how Wright would prefer to recruit.

"This is the time of year I've always hit the road," he said. "There's nothing better than going to a high school spring practice. You usually see some of your friends on other college staffs there, you get time to get to know the high school coach better, get to see how a kid practices. I know a lot of high school coaches, and right now I miss seeing them."

Yet Wright also believes this forced isolation could pay benefits down the road, especially in reducing costs, which will be supremely necessary once we get back to normal, if we ever do.

"It's certainly forced us to think outside the box, which is a good thing," Wright said. "We're finding new ways to sell our campus and our program. Virtual tours of campus. Videos about student life. We're getting ready to produce a video on a day in the life of a Chattanooga football player. No matter how you do it, it's really all about selling your product and we've got a good product to sell here."

Befitting a grizzled veteran who's been in this college football business for more than 20 years, Wright does throw one wise note of caution toward his Big Orange counterparts' recruiting class.

"It's definitely impressive, especially the last week and a half," he said. "But I've also thought, 'It's a long way until December.'"

Indeed, for all this good news, and it's really more like spectacular news if the Vols' class holds, no sport offers more highs and lows for its fans than college football recruiting, where young men change their minds as often as they change their ringtones.

Which is one reason why Wright says he won't sign anyone "Until they've been on our campus."

No player or potential player is on any campus yet. That is expected to change by mid-to-late summer, and it needs to if we expect to see football in the fall at UT, UTC or anywhere else.

As NCAA president Mark Emmert noted last week: "All of the commissioners and every president that I've talked to are in clear agreement: If you don't have students on campus, you don't have student-athletes on campus."

And if there are no student-athletes on campus, there's no football, basketball or any other sport.

But one thing Wright is certain of is that the longer student-athletes are off campus, the more they yearn to be back, even if it may only be partly due to missing their sport.

"There's a lot of cheap labor happening around the Southeast right now," he said with a chuckle. "Which means that whenever we do get back there, there are going to be a lot of players not complaining as much about how hard they're working."

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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