The 2019 football season for the Tennessee Volunteers is fast approaching. As the season looms ever closer, this edition of the Vols is one that seems to frustrate experts as they forecast their expectations for Tennessee. Though they are coming off a 5-7 campaign in 2018 with relatively low roster attrition, the 2019 Vols figure to have a very different look thanks to an injection of talent from a highly regarded recruiting class. Injuries, medical retirements, and graduate transfers have also opened opportunities for players a bit buried on the roster last season, while several returning starters should take strides forward with new coaches and an additional year to develop. This series intends to highlight several of the individual players that will have the biggest impact on how the 2019 season goes for Tennessee. The series continues by highlighting one of those fresh faces on campus, Darnell Wright.
On National Signing Day, live on ESPN, the entire college football world watched to see where Darnell Wright was going to commit. He had offers from major programs all over the country, but it was down to a few teams. Georgia still felt they had a shot for the five-star tackle, the home state Mountaineers were making a hard, late push, Alabama was a contender, and Tennessee, who felt they still had a strong relationship with the quiet star. When Wright unzipped his jacket to show a bright orange shirt and a Power T, the Vols had landed one of the best players in the nation and had gone up against the country’s elite to get him. Wright had an unusual recruitment, but not in the way that it is typically viewed. Wright kept things very close to the vest through the entire process, stayed quiet on social media, and didn’t do many interviews, feeling more compelled to focus on his senior season at Huntington High School in West Virginia. Wright built relationships with coaches, listened to what they had to say, listened to some of the elite players he could be partnered with, and let his play on the field do the talking. That play spoke volumes.
For much of the 2019 cycle, either Darnell Wright or fellow five-star offensive tackle Wanya Morris were rated as the top tackle in the nation. That Tennessee was able to land a pair of such highly rated tackles in the same class speaks to the job Tennessee did in recruiting the pair, the job Morris did of staying in Wright’s ear, and the need that the Vols have for both of these players in their current offensive line. Make no mistake, neither Wright nor Morris are coming to Tennessee to sit on the bench. The Vols had one of the worst offensive lines in America in 2018, and Darnell Wright was a front runner for a starting tackle job the day he set foot on campus.
Jeremy Pruitt and offensive line coach Will Friend have been trying to get Tennessee bigger upfront, and Wright certainly helps them do that. Weighing in at three hundred thirty pounds and standing six foot six, Wright is a mountain of a man, despite only being seventeen years old. He is a physically dominant offensive lineman, with incredible strength. Wright regularly manhandles defenders lined up across from him on tape, but his size and strength are only part of the story. Along with his physicality, Wright brings a deceptive quickness. For a high school tackle, especially for his size, Wright is staggeringly fast with excellent lateral movement. He moves well, maintains good footwork in pass protection, and can keep up with speed rushers regularly. In pass protection, Wright also uses his hands well. He rarely holds, punches out well with his hands, delivers serious blows with said punch, and moves to keep himself in front of the defender while he does so. Wright will have to adjust to the step-up in competition he will face, coming to the SEC, but he has every physical tool a coach could want in an offensive lineman.
The only thing likely to keep Wright playing right tackle is his new running mate Morris. Wright and Morris can both play either tackle spot, but Morris is a much more natural left tackle, while Wright can play either equally well. That means that Wright should slot in at Tennessee’s starting right tackle for the opening game of the season. More than just his size, Wright brings a physical presence and a hard-nosed attitude to Tennessee’s line. He is a clean player, but Wright plays with a mean streak between the whistles, which is terrifying with a man of his size and strength. Wright has the ability to steamroll defenders at multiple levels of the defense on every play in the running game. He will have to adjust to the SEC and learn to play with better technique, but the talent for Wright is there. In high school, Wright was just physically so much bigger and stronger than almost everyone he faced, he was able to toss defenders aside without getting his pads low and utilizing his leverage. Friend will be harping on pad level to Wright, as is common with most freshman offensive linemen. However, unlike most freshman offensive linemen, if Wright can learn that technique quickly and utilize it in games, he provides Tennessee with a dominant run blocker. The right guard battle to the left of Wright is one with multiple players in the mix, but one of those is K’Rojhn Calbert. If Calbert were to land the job at right guard, the Vols would have a pair of players at three hundred thirty pounds on the same side of the offensive line, which should make for an exciting running backs’ room.
The importance of Wright is much like Morris, it isn’t just that these two freshmen are so talented, it is that Tennessee doesn’t have much behind them. For the Vols, if either of the freshmen were to get hurt or fail to pan out, the best answer might be to move Trey Smith back out to left tackle, but that dramatically weakens the interior of the line. Fellow true freshman Chris Akporoghene would get a look at some tackle reps, as would Marcus Tatum. Still, the Vols have struggled at tackle with what they have returning on the roster there, and for the Vols to have any hope of taking a step forward, the offensive line must make a dramatic improvement. If Morris and Wright can come in, stay healthy, and live up to expectations, they can serve as the catalysts for changing this entire offense. Even average offensive line play would allow Jim Chaney to open up his playbook and call a real offensive scheme, something that would have been impossible behind last year’s line that could neither pass nor run block. The pressure on Wright is real because the success of the offense is relying on him arriving ready to play and be a starter. If he isn’t, it could be a very, very long year for Tennessee again.
The young freshman is one of the most important players on the Volunteer roster. He is carrying the hopes and expectations of much of the team and coaching staff on his shoulders. A struggling Wright or Morris likely means a difficult year for Tennessee. If they live up to expectations, the Vols are capable of surprising some opponents. Should the freshman duo exceed what is anticipated, it could change the entire complexion of the Tennessee offense and their Vols’ seasons as a whole. It might not be fair to expect so much of a new arrival to campus, but that is the situation Darnell Wright finds himself in. Still, Wright knew well that this is what he would be walking into when he unzipped his jacket on Signing Day. The quiet, workmanlike tackle knows that the weight of a season rests on his broad shoulders. Watching his tape, seeing his talent, and knowing his attitude and approach, it is difficult to see him failing to manage that load.