Darnell Wright proved his worth to Bears by beating ‘really high-end players’

Alabama star edge rusher Will Anderson wasn’t the only star Wright has shut down.

SHARE Darnell Wright proved his worth to Bears by beating ‘really high-end players’
Bears first-round draft pick Darnell Wright speaks Friday at Halas Hall.

Bears first-round draft pick Darnell Wright speaks Friday at Halas Hall.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

The calendar told Darnell Wright all he needed to know.

It was the third Saturday in October, the traditional day his Tennessee Volunteers play Alabama in an SEC rivalry that began in 1901. The Crimson Tide — and star edge rusher Will Anderson, who would become the first defensive player drafted Thursday — awaited.

“I knew it was a big game,” said Wright, the right tackle whom the Bears drafted with the 10th overall pick. “You could sit there and act like it’s not, but every third Saturday in October, it’s going to be rocking and rolling.”

It certainly was Oct. 15, when Tennessee stunned No. 3 Alabama to win its first rivalry game in 16 tries. Neyland Stadium held 101,915 fans that day, and many stormed the field to celebrate the 52-49 victory. The goalposts came down — and one wound up at the bottom of the Tennessee River.

Amid the maelstrom, a fan grabbed the back of Wright’s shoulder pads. Even at 6-5 and 333 pounds, Wright struggled to shake free.

“Everybody was swarming,” Wright said Friday at Halas Hall. “It was crazy.”

Wright was a big reason for one of the great victories in program history. Not only did he shut down Anderson, but the Volunteers’ game plan revolved around him doing just that.

It was that kind of dominance in the biggest game of his career that enticed the Bears to make the 21-year-old the first offensive lineman they’ve drafted in the top 10 in 40 years.

“This kid’s ability to win against really high-end players made us feel even more convicted about him,” Bears general manager Ryan Poles said.

Volunteers coach Josh Heupel said Friday that being able to leave Wright on an island to block Anderson helped his offense dominate. The Vols entered the game averaging 548 yards per game, the best in the country, and scored 52 points, their most ever against a top-25 team.

“It’s an unbelievable luxury that we do have the trust that Darnell’s going to be able to lock that down,” Heupel said. “And [to] allow us to do the things that we want schematically — to be able to push the ball down the field with his pass protection but be dominant in the run game, too, and allow us to be really efficient in the run game.”

Wright held Anderson — college football’s best defensive player — to two hurries and no sacks. In his 40 other college games, Anderson totaled 34½ sacks and a whopping 132 hurries.

He tried power moves and hesitation ones, finesse and power. None really worked.

“As the game went on, I definitely adjusted,” Wright said. “You have all that stuff in your head. As the game went on, it got better.”

Analyst Brian Baldinger would say later that he “saw Darnell Wright eliminate Will Anderson.”

The Alabama star — who would call the Huntington, West Virginia, native the best tackle he faced last year — wasn’t the only star Wright has shut down:

† On Nov. 13, 2021, while playing left tackle, Wright helped hold Georgia’s Travon Walker to no sacks, two hurries and a fumble recovery. Walker would become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 draft.

“I knew the Georgia defense; they like to sit down on the run a lot,” Wright said. “They’re very disciplined in what they do, so you kinda use that to your advantage.”

† Playing right tackle last season, Wright nearly blanked LSU’s B.J. Ojulari, who had no sacks and one pressure on 30 pass-rush downs Oct. 8. Ojulari’s Pro Football Focus grade was his third-lowest of the season.

“He had a lot of moves,” Wright said of Ojulari, whom the Cardinals drafted in Round 2 with the 41st overall pick Friday. “The only thing he really didn’t have was his size — the weight behind it. That was the kind of thing I thought I’d take advantage of.

“I knew he didn’t like to go inside. I would overset and let him go inside, and when he did, I don’t wanna say I smashed him, but . . .”

† In the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30, Clemson’s Bryan Bresee — who was drafted No. 29 on Thursday — had two tackles and one sack against the Vols.

“That was the one game in a long time that I’ve messed up on,’’ Wright said. “He had a little bit more wiggle to him than I thought. . . . Maybe the first person that really checked all the boxes.”

Poles noticed how Wright’s game elevated against the best in the SEC.

“There were guys that were on our [draft] board that are really talented that he’s going against, and he did a really good job,” Poles said. “You go to last year and go on the left side and see guys that were first overall picks, guys that have played in the league, guys that have production in the league, and he did really well.

“So that always helps — because it’s hard. You’ve got to make that jump, and it’s a big jump. And you’re going to get combinations of length, size, speed — guys who have studied the little details and find your weaknesses.”

Drafting someone to help protect quarterback Justin Fields allows the Bears to try to fix theirs.

“With Justin, guys rush a certain way, so you want to try to keep the pocket nice and wide — and obviously deep, as well,” Poles said. “But we just think that we can take the next step in pass pro, as well, and continue to grow in the run game. And be balanced.”

Fields already has reached out to his new protector.

“He seems like he’s just getting better and better and better,” Wright said. “I’m happy to be here and do whatever I can for him.”

The Latest
Just one week after the Sky and Fever drew the WNBA’s biggest TV audience in 23 years — 2.25 million viewers on CBS — the teams broke ESPN’s WNBA viewership record with 2.3 million watching at home.
Jahmere Washington has picked Wisconsin and Jovan Clark committed to Wyoming.
A look at the top players in the state’s Class of 2025 and a big notebook of thoughts from this past weekend’s shootout at Riverside-Brookfield.
Steele held the Giants to two runs through 7 1/3 innings in the Cubs’ 5-4 loss Monday.
Summer patterns, especially coho and perch, settling in and the start of the Kankakee River Fishing Derby on Friday lead this sprawling raw-file Midwest Fishing Report.