Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel only coached Darnell Wright for two seasons after joining the program in 2021 prior to the offensive lineman's junior year.
When Heupel met Wright—the Bears' first-round draft selection as the 10th overall pick—the offensive lineman was a young player with potential. But it wasn't long before Wright transformed into a mature, dominant leader who elevated the players around him.
"As he gained confidence and comfort and really grew into his personality and who he is, you could see his competitive nature show up in the meeting room," Heupel said in a Zoom meeting with Chicago media Friday.
"The urgency that he prepared with, how he affected the guys around him and then that started to show up on the field with his physicality, his energy and those times on the sideline you could feel that urgency in moments where you needed someone to step up."
One of those moments surfaced during one of college football's most riveting games in 2022, when Tennessee snapped a 15-game losing streak to No. 3 Alabama with a 52-49 win.
In the rivalry game, Wright contained Crimson Tide edge rusher Will Anderson, one of the nation's top defenders who was selected as the No. 3 overall pick by the Texans Thursday night.
Anderson totaled 51 tackles, 10.0 sacks and 17.0 tackles-for-loss in the 2022 season. Against Tennessee on Oct. 15, Wright held the outside linebacker to three tackles and 0.5 TFLs, helping keep the Volunteers' offense rolling through all four quarters.
At the NFL Combine in March, Anderson told reporters it was exciting to go against Wright and added, "[Wright's] very athletic, can bend, can re-trace with his steps if he gets off balance, can sit down on powers."
Friday morning on ESPN's Get Up, Anderson shared more praise for the No. 10 overall pick.
By competing against some of the nation's top prospects in the SEC, Wright continuously proved his versatility and tenacity throughout college. Heupel praised Wright's "ability to be ready to play at a high level," attributing it to the lineman's professionalism in his mental and physical preparedness each week.
"The best thing as a coach is when you have comfort that you feel like you have the luxury to put him on an island," Heupel said. "You don't have to protect him, and he's going to handle what's probably the biggest factor on the opposing side of the field. And Darnell did that consistently over the last two years – absolute elite level this past year.
"You mention Will Anderson, he did a fantastic job with them for 60 minutes and handled himself in a really dominant fashion throughout the course of his career and I'm really excited about what he's got coming next."
Wright's tape portrays obvious physical talents. He started 42 games over four seasons and in his final two seasons at Tennessee, he started all 26 games. But his character also appealed to general manager Ryan Poles, who Thursday night said: "[Wright's] got a lot of charisma. He's got a personality, a bounce in his step. He's confident, man. And that's what you love about him."
On Thursday evening as the 2023 NFL Draft approached, Heupel walked into Wright's draft party in Knoxville and was greeted by a large number of the offensive lineman's teammates. While Heupel described the support as "really unique and really special," it wasn't surprising considering he watched Wright develop tight bonds teammates on both sides of the ball.
"He's an intense competitor that's physically gifted, as gifted as probably I've probably ever been around," Heupel said. "But he's a really lovable, likable guy. He's got a great infectious smile when he walks in the building. He's a real dude."
While Wright's loyalty and energy has remained the same since Heupel first met him in 2021, the lineman's confidence level was incredibly different than it is now. While Wright experienced a breakout season his junior year, Heupel saw the biggest jump the ensuing offseason. He watched Wright develop into a player with premier NFL-caliber talent and is confident the former Volunteer will create an immediate impact in Chicago.
"He is somebody who was able to look himself in the mirror and truly see his potential had the chance to be realized," Heupel said. "He is somebody who gained great confidence in his work habits and through his work habits and that allowed him to refine his play.
"When he got here, I would describe him as a very young football player. That was fundamentally but it was also just in his football IQ. Over the last two years, that guy has grown in that in an unbelievable way.
"I think that was a huge part of his draft process, his being able to showcase his knowledge of the game, not just what he was doing but what all five guys were doing and what we were doing against different defenses, schemes and alignments. I'm really proud of the steps he took."
With the 10th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, the Bears select Tennessee OL Darnell Wright.