There is no secret how important the 2019 recruiting class is to Jeremy Pruitt and the Tennessee Volunteers. In multiple interviews this season, Pruitt referenced needing to get his own guys into the program before they could compete at the level they wanted. While Pruitt and Company recruited far better than anticipated during their brief time with the Vols in the 2018 cycle, the combination of a 4-8 season and the handicaps resulting from an odyssey of a coaching search clearly hampered them. The 2019 class represents Jeremy Pruitt’s first class at Tennessee in which he and his staff have had a full year to assemble the players they want. Due to the talent of these players and the emphasis Pruitt has placed on wanting to get his own players into the program, expect to see the young men from this class on the field early and often. Here's an idea of what to expect on the field through Spring Ball and into the fall. We continue our Player Profile series by looking at West Virginia product Darnell Wright.
Anyone who watched Tennessee play this fall could see that offensive line play was an Achilles’ heel. In order to be successful in SEC football, a team must be able to run the ball and protect the passer. The Vols struggled mightily to do both those consistently in 2018. Tennessee averaged 129 yards rushing per game on the season, dead last in the SEC. The Vols also only had two 100 yard rushers in a game in 2018, an indicator of how poorly the run game developed. Pass protection was also an area of concern for Tennessee last season. Although Vol signal callers were sacked 23 times, tied with Auburn for 7th in the conference, Jarrett Guarantano and Keller Chryst were consistently harassed and hit on drop back attempts. Any team transitioning into a new offense should expect growing pains, but Tennessee never seemed to progress past those roadblocks. Many various factors go into an offense struggling, but the inconsistency of the offensive line certainly hampered the Vols when they had the ball.
Offensive line was certainly going to be a point of emphasis for Jeremy Pruitt and his staff on the recruiting trail. The Vols were able to sign five offensive linemen in the 2019 recruiting cycle, including 2 five star players, 1 four star, and 2 three star road graders. Darnell Wright, a 6’6” 320 pound tackle out of Huntington, WV was arguably the biggest grab of the 2019 recruiting season. Tennessee was able to snag Wright over offers from West Virginia, Alabama, Clemson and Florida, among others. The monster tackle is a composite 5 star player, ranked as the number 10 overall player in the country, and the number 2 offensive lineman, according the 247 sports rankings.
Early projections have Wright playing tackle along the offensive line, with one evaluator stating the he has the foot speed to play left tackle, which is typically the “blind side”. His 6’6” frame makes him a prototypical offensive tackle. He is very aggressive, attacking defenders with great intensity. His long arms allow him to get separation from defenders and control them at the point of attack. He is deceptively quick (4.75 in the shuttle, 5.3 in the 40 yard sprint), which allows him to climb to the next level to block linebackers and defensive backs. Darnell exhibits great pad level for such a tall player, getting under defenders and driving them off the ball on run plays. He is very consistent in pass protection, locking up would be pass rushers and preventing them from harassing the QB. He also played defensive end in high school, which shows his athletic ability and conditioning. Playing on the other side of the ball could potentially benefit him as a pass blocker, with the ability to anticipate what the pass rusher will do. His sheer size alone is a marked improvement over the Tennessee offensive linemen from the 2018 roster.
Pruitt and offensive line coach Will Friend were able to immediately address the need for marquee players along the front line in this 2019 recruiting cycle. Only time will tell if the players that they were able to net will turn into great players Darnell Wright certainly has the measurables to become a great SEC offensive lineman, and the success of the Vols in 2019 and going forward will be dependent on how well he and the other players in this class develop.