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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Baylor's Elijah Howard carries the ball during a TSSAA Division II-AA quarterfinal against visiting Montgomery Bell Academy on Nov. 15, 2019.

Whether he considers himself a trendsetter or not, Elijah Howard was certainly ahead of the curve.

Before he had even played a snap for Baylor School, the prep football standout who transferred from Knoxville Webb became the University of Tennessee's second commitment for the 2021 signing class when he made his nonbinding pledge last June.

Since then, the Volunteers' impressive list of talent has continued to grow — particularly over the past two weeks, when nine players rated as four-star prospects or better have committed to Jeremy Pruitt's program — and the Red Raiders' versatile all-state athlete has marveled at how the group has skyrocketed to the top of national recruiting rankings.

"The environment they're creating is a big deal," Howard said. "When I committed, I had people asking me 'Why Tennessee?' because they hadn't been real good for a while. Now everybody is seeing why I picked them, because a lot of other guys are jumping on the bandwagon.

"I knew it was coming, but seeing how it was rolling every day with a new commitment, that part even surprised me. We've got some group messages and talk, so I knew some of the guys who were coming, but some others, I was like everybody else who was finding out on Twitter and loving it."

Less than two weeks ago, the Vols were No. 17 in the 247Sports team rankings for the 2021 signing cycle. Then they jumped up to fifth, were third by last weekend and after this past Monday's commitment moved to No. 2 in the nation behind Ohio State, which means they're tops in the Southeastern Conference.

Late Saturday afternoon, Tennessee picked up its 19th commitment from four-star defensive tackle KaTron Evans (6-4, 320) of St. Frances Academy in Baltimore. Two more four-star prospects who have Tennessee among their favorites are set to go public with their choices this weekend, which could only add more shine to the already dynamic class.

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Photo by Cade Deakin / Baylor running back Elijah Howard hurdles a defender during a home game against Knoxville Catholic on Oct. 18, 2019. Howard was the second prospect to commit to the University of Tennessee for the 2021 signing cycle, and in recent weeks the Vols have surged toward the top of the national recruiting rankings.

How does it feel?

"To be a part of this class that's getting so much attention is great," Howard said. "Coach Pruitt has the right guys coming to change the program. The coaches tell you that if you come in and perform, you will get playing time because the best players are going to be on the field. That's how a lot of big-time teams became great — you get guys who want to compete against the best in practice every day and go win championships.

"We've talked about it. We want the 2021 class to be the one that helps bring a championship back. You just feel the confidence from the coaches. You know they've all won championships and they've developed some great players, so that gives you all the faith in the world that they're the best staff in the SEC and you want to be coached by them."

Howard, who was timed at 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash at a skills camp at Alabama last summer and chose the Vols over offers from Mississippi State, Purdue, Virginia and Virginia Tech among others, has bulked up to 190 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame.

He was an electric addition to Baylor's offense last season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 20 touchdowns to become a state Mr. Football finalist in Division II-AAA. He could play any position from running back to slot receiver to defensive back in college, where he could certainly become a weapon as a kick returner.

"I believe I can play anywhere they need me to and make an impact," Howard said. "I'm willing to do whatever the coaches ask."

So far, Howard and Brentwood High School receiver Walker Merrill are the only two in-state commitments for the Vols' 2021 class, but 20 of the state's top 30 prospects are undecided, including the top two: Hardin County tight end Hudson Wolfe and Ravenwood linebacker Junior Colson.

During the Vols' run of football mediocrity that lasted much of the past decade, recruiting has not been as much of a problem as their lack of development of talent. During Butch Jones' five seasons as coach (2013-17) Tennessee signed a class rated as one of the nation's top 20 each year, including two in the top 10. However, the Vols produced an average of just 2.5 players taken in the NFL draft from those signing classes.

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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Bradley Central receiver Tray Curry outruns Cleveland's Parker Chastain to score a touchdown on Oct. 4, 2019. Tennessee is among the programs Curry is considering as a possible destination for his college football future.

Local connections

If he carries through on his commitment, Howard will be the first Chattanooga-area player to sign with the Vols since former Bradley Central offensive lineman Austin Sanders in 2013.

Tennessee is expected to sign from 25 to 28 players in this recruiting class and could be at 21 commitments by the end of the weekend, leaving few remaining open spots. That won't affect the decision process for the remaining Chattanooga-area players being recruited by the Vols, though.

Bradley Central receiver Tray Curry (6-4, 205) is at the top of the list of local players being most hotly recruited.

"Tennessee has always been one of my top teams, but all those other commitments won't speed up my decision process," said Curry, who lists Auburn and Virginia Tech as his other top choices. "I know they've already got several couple good receivers in this class, but I believe if I go there, I can get on the field and help them.

"I know their coaches want me to go ahead and commit, and I want to make my decision before our season starts, but I plan to take visits to help with my decision. I want to see how I fit in with any program and what's best for me as far as how the coaches will develop me as a player and person before I commit."

The coronavirus pandemic that shut down sports in mid-March also led to an NCAA-mandated dead period for recruiting that means campus and coaches' visits are not allowed through at least May 31.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / McCallie's B.J. Harris celebrates as time winds down during the Division II-AAA BlueCross Bowl state title game against Montgomery Bell Academy on Dec. 5, 2019, at Tennessee Tech. Harris said he is still considering committing to Tennessee but is aware the Vols already have several running backs who have pledged to them for the 2021 recruiting cycle.

McCallie's B.J. Harris, who is rated as the state's top running back prospect and the No. 11 overall in-state recruit by Rivals.com, said that while he's still considering the Vols, he has noticed that they already have four running backs committed in this class.

"I'm not afraid of competing, but I know they're already pretty deep at that position," said Harris, who listed Kentucky, Louisville, LSU, Missouri and Nebraska among the other schools he's considering.

"When I got the offer from LSU, they became a high priority for me to look at. Honestly, I haven't been in contact with them in a while, so I'm not real sure where that stands."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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