Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 21, 2023

Early draft prospects good for Vols other than Hooker

Jalin Hyatt won the 2022 Biletnikoff Award, which goes annually to the nation’s top receiver. He had 1,267 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns during that junior season. - Photo by Jerry Denham |The Ledger

There seems to always be buzz about the quarterbacks when it comes to the NFL Draft. But it’s highly likely the first player from the University of Tennessee picked next week will be a player responsible for protecting the quarterback.

Offensive tackle Darnell Wright is projected to be a top 20 pick and could wind up in the top 10 when the draft takes place April 27-29 in Kansas City.

Wright joins UT quarterback Hendon Hooker, edge rusher Byron Young and wide receiver Jalin Hyatt as the most probable early round selections for the Vols.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. moved Wright into the top 10 of the NFL mock draft he released April 11. Kiper had four UT players going in the first two rounds, including Wright at No. 9 overall to the Chicago Bears. Kiper Jr. says Wright can be an “instant starter” for an NFL team.

“Wright started 27 games at right tackle in college; his tape against Will Anderson Jr. and Alabama was phenomenal,” Kiper wrote. “He’s the best right tackle in this class. My pal Louis Riddick is a huge fan, too. This is a selection to keep quarterback Justin Fields clean.”

Riddick says of Wright: “He will be the best player to come out of this draft regardless of position. Mark my words. Best player in this draft.”

A 42-game starter at Tennessee, Wright primarily played right tackle during his first two seasons with the Vols before moving to left tackle for his junior season in 2021. He shifted back to right tackle for the 2022 season and didn’t allow a single sack while earning All-SEC first-team honors.

Anderson provided his endorsement of Wright during the NFL Combine when he was asked about the top tackles he faced in college.

“Darnell Wright from Tennessee, my sophomore year to my junior year, he had gotten way better,” Anderson says. “Very athletic, can bend, can re-trace with his steps. If he gets off balance, can sit down on powers, so it was really exciting going against him this year. He was really great.”

Wright credits former UT teammates Trey Smith, a Super Bowl winner with the Kansas City Chiefs, and Cade Mays with preparing him for the NFL.

“They’ve just been helping me to carry myself in a way that’s professional. I think I’ve already implemented the steps to get to this point to be a professional,” Wright said at the NFL Combine. “Now it’s just all about preparing yourself in that way and having confidence in yourself, so that’s where they helped me the most.”

Kiper has Hooker late in the first

Kiper Jr. had Hooker going at No. 30 overall to the Seattle Seahawks late in the first round of his mock draft. He also had Tennessee edge rusher Byron Young and wide receiver Jalin Hyatt as second-round selections.

“There’s some buzz about Hooker rising into the first round, and this could be the perfect landing spot,” Kiper wrote. “I have a second-round grade on him, but I can see why he might be appealing. He led the FBS in Total QBR (89.5) and yards per attempt (9.5) last season, and he threw just five picks over two seasons at Tennessee. His accuracy on deep throws is really good.

“The downside? He played in a quarterback-friendly offense, didn’t have to go through progressions and is coming off a torn ACL suffered in November,” Kiper added. “There’s going to be a learning curve in the NFL. Plus, he’s already 25 years old, so there are questions about his ceiling.”

Hyatt gets good feedback

Hyatt, Tennessee’s first Biletnikoff Award winner in program history, says he’s received positive feedback during his meetings and workouts.

“I’ve talked to maybe 15 to 20 teams. All of their coaches and GMs are in there and they’re asking everything about you: What type of player you are, what you do this or that, but I felt like I did pretty good,” Hyatt says. “I can talk about football 24/7 based off of what Coach (Josh) Heupel and Coach (Kelsey) Pope taught me in this offense. It’s easy, this interview process, especially being around guys like (Hendon) Hooker.”

Tennessee’s potential draftees also include wide receiver Cedric Tillman, defensive tackle Omari Thomas, linebacker Jeremy Banks, defensive end Tyler Baron, running back Jabari Small, cornerback Warren Burrell, guard Jerome Carvin, tight end Princeton Fant and wide receiver Ramel Keyton. They likely won’t all get drafted, but could sign free-agent contracts once the draft is over.

Speaking after Tennessee’s Pro Day, where all 32 NFL teams were represented, Heupel says he is confident the Vols were preparing players to transition to the next level on both sides of the ball. He says others will see that success and want the same.

“This group of guys, we’re going to have a lot of high draft picks that come out of it,” Heupel says. “Hope the way that we’re recruiting, the guys that we’re bringing in, the development that we have here we will continue to have that.”