Get to know Darnell Wright: Q&A with the new Chicago Bears offensive tackle’s college coach
Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles wanted a full test of Darnell Wright’s resilience and grit. In the final stages of the team’s draft preparation in April, Poles was strongly considering using his first first-round pick as an NFL GM on an offensive lineman and had Tennessee’s Wright tabbed as the top tackle on the board.
But Poles wanted Wright to pass one more test and flew to Knoxville, Tenn., with Bears offensive line coach Chris Morgan in early April to conduct an intense daylong assessment of Wright’s mental and physical stamina.
The Bears loved what they saw from Wright that day on the Tennessee campus, and three weeks later they made him the No. 10 pick in the draft, locking him in as a likely starter for his rookie season and beyond.
Tennessee offensive line coach Glen Elarbee worked with Wright for two seasons and sees high-end NFL potential for the massive tackle. Elarbee spoke to the Tribune recently to provide insight into Wright’s game and wiring. Here’s that interview, edited for clarity.
Note: This is the last of a series of conversations with the college position coaches of this year’s Bears draft picks.
Seeing the stairstep climb Darnell made during the two seasons you were with him, what struck you the most about his development as you reflect back on it?
Man, I just think when we got here (to Tennessee), Darnell’s ability to have confidence in himself and see himself have success individually and with the guys around him, he just started taking steps. It wasn’t something that happened overnight. He worked at it and was good for us that first spring, then really good into camp and in the season, and the next spring (in 2022) is when he really accelerated. Going into fall camp, you just knew he was going to be really, really special with the way he was practicing and how hard he worked and the way he understood the game. And then the leaps and bounds he took mentally was noticeable. It was a cool maturation process to watch.
Mentally where do you think he came the furthest?
He just started to understand the entire game. When we were first there, he would take tests and he could draw up what he did and maybe a couple other guys. But by the end of his time, he was drawing up what all five (offensive linemen) were doing plus the tight ends and the running backs. Everything. All of a sudden, he had the full picture and understood the schemes. Now, I think probably the next step for him will be being able to apply more technique to exactly what he’s seeing. He grew in that area. But, man, there is so much more for him to improve on there and it’s going to be fun to watch.
When you study his career, a lot of people talk about the success he had against Travon Walker in 2021 and then Will Anderson and Alabama last season. What did you learn about Darnell through those tests?
The craziest thing about the Will Anderson matchup last season is that the week of, Darnell was like: “Man, I’m going to be good. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to overset with this guy and be all good.” He just had a confidence within himself and he knew what he was going to be able to do. And Darnell is his best when he has someone really good lined up across from him. He’s almost super-competitive and wants to do everything perfectly. And even when something doesn’t go right and it’s not even his fault, he gets torn up about it and almost kicks his game to a higher gear. He’s pretty special that way.
The folks in Chicago are still getting to know Darnell. But it feels out of the gates like he carries himself with a low-key confidence. Would you consider that an accurate description?
I’d say so. As you get to know him, he’s one of the best human beings on the planet. Everybody in our room loved him. Everybody who actually gets to know him loves him. Over time, he opens up to you a little bit more and a little bit more. But for sure, it’s a low-key confidence. He knows what he is capable of. One of the ways he made the most progress is believing that. I don’t know that he always completely realized how crazy talented he was, even though everybody was always telling him. I think now he’s kind of figured that out.
What does it tell you about him that he stayed through the turbulence at Tennessee with the NCAA investigation and the coaching change and all that went on, particularly in an era when so many kids are racing to the transfer portal when things get rough?
Yeah, man, I’m truly appreciative to him. He gave us a chance when he didn’t have to. We tried to build some trust with him, and by the end of it, you talk about a sucker who is just unbelievably loyal. Two things that stick out in my head are, number one, the bowl game. At a time when a lot of guys, especially as talented as Darnell, may not have competed in that bowl game, he wanted in. I said, “Hey, ‘Nell, man, you going to play in the bowl game?” And he was like, “Why wouldn’t I play in the bowl game?” He almost looked at me like I was crazy for asking.
And then one of my favorite memories was when we were playing Vanderbilt in the last game of the year. It was a blowout and he had already been pulled. But then we ran into some injuries. And it hurt my heart to go grab him to put him back in. And I just looked at him and before I could even get the words out of my mouth, he nodded at me and said, “I got you. Let’s go ride.” He’s a total team guy, just wants to be there with the guys, and he’s there for you, especially if he believes in you and he trusts you.
The Bears talent evaluators were really drawn to Darnell’s tenacity. You put on one tape, then another, then a third and quickly see the edge he plays with. How would you describe that?
For sure. A lot of times if you don’t binge-watch the tape and you’re just around him in day-to-day life, he comes across as this big, cuddly teddy bear. Then you throw on that tape and he’s trying to physically inflict pain on you. He’s violent in what he does. He has unbelievable athletic ability but he can use his hips and transfer all of his power into his blocks and he can just absolutely destroy somebody like that. Having been as fortunate as I have to see somebody take (defensive ends) and just quickly road-grade them and move the them way he does. And he’s tough too. You’ll never know if he’s hurting because he’ll keep going and by the end of it, you try to pull him out of practice and he won’t want to come out. He wants the reps, wants to get better. That’s all part of his physical toughness and tenacity.
When did you become aware of the now-famous workout the Bears put him through in Knoxville in April?
Funny enough, that day I was out at my son’s soccer and it was raining. So I ran over to the facility to grab my umbrella. Jerome (Carvin), who had been there working with him, popped out and was like, “Yeah, man, we just worked out with the Bears and that guy tried to kill him, man.” He was like, “There were some choice words that were said, but they told me not to lay off of him and try to see if I can break him.” Then Darnell popped up and says to me, “Man, that guy tried to kill me! But it was fun!” With his playful personality, he enjoyed it. He thought it was the greatest thing ever.
Then that night, me, Jerome, Cade (Mays) and Darnell all went out to eat and got to hear more of the war stories from that 30-minute workout and laughed about it. … I think one of our operations guys was out there and ‘Nell may have been trying to look at him like, “Hey, man. Give me a pause here.” But it kept on rolling. He lays it all out there and that’s why they liked that. You can’t question that guy’s toughness or effort, that’s for sure.
What’s an area you might emphasize where his next-level transition will require him to lock in and improve to aid his development?
I think he’s going to continue to get better with his techniques. He was always watching NFL tape with us and trying new things. And there were times when he saw, yes, this is when you want to use that, or, no, this is not an ideal spot to use that. Sometimes I feel like he got bored at practice and did some stuff that nobody else could do just to see what the next progression would be. And it was: “When do I try this set? When do I use this punch? When can I use all these different types of things versus each different guy that I face?” I think that’s where he’ll probably have to continue to evolve the most.
He played on both the right and left sides for you guys. The Bears, ideally, see him slotting in at right tackle and staying there. What makes him most effective on that side?
I don’t think it’s necessarily that he’s most effective on the right or left side. Our first year here he played left, and then to his unselfishness, we went into 2022 and before I could even have a conversation with him, the two guys who could potentially replace Cade (Mays at right tackle) had only played left. And he came to me and said, “Man, I think for the room, it might be best if I go to right and give those guys a chance to stay on the left side.” I said, “Yeah, I agree.”
And then he got better there the last year. If he had stayed on the left side, he would have been just as good on the left. He just got better as a football player. So that’s one thing that’s a little bit of a misperception. That guy can play on the left. Absolutely. He just got better. And he’s still getting better. But it wasn’t about the right side or left side.
Most people in the NFL who started to fall in love with him during the pre-draft process point out how much developmental upside Darnell still has. And he’s only 21 years old. So where do you see that as far as the skill set and the dominance he’s shown and yet understanding that the growth potential is still there?
That’s what I kept trying to tell scouts early on. There’s a lot of meat on this bone. His first couple years of college just didn’t flow, didn’t mesh well, didn’t go as well as they could have. Then, all of a sudden, the last two years he started to have that huge growth. And he’s still so young as both a person and as a football player. He’s just going to continue to get better and learn, and where he was two years ago versus where he is now? Now you get him into another camp and at the end of this rookie season, that guy is on the road to being special. He’ll play a long time.
The one thing we see immediately as we’ve laid our own eyes on him is what 6-5, 335 looks like. I’m sure you know what we mean.
For real. He’s huge. You don’t fully realize it watching the tape because you watch the way he moves. It’s like, there’s no way this guy is as big as he is. Then you walk up on him. Large human. Large, large man. And he has a big heart, man.