By Grant Traylor, The Herald-Dispatch, for the West Virginia Sports Writers Association
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — For years, there has been an image of offensive and defensive linemen that they are just big guys who like to bully each other along the line of scrimmage in the nasty area called the trenches.
While part of that is true, Huntington High junior two-way standout Darnell Wright is trying to change the game on how linemen are seen.
Wright’s athleticism combines with his size to forge one of the nation’s top offensive line recruits for the Class of 2019. It is a dynamic that earned him the 2017 Stydahar Award, which is given to the state’s top interior lineman.
“He’s got this aggressiveness to him, coachability and knack to be able to adjust on the fly,” said Adam Friedman, Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Analyst in a video for Rivals.com. “For a player that size, it’s just really uncommon.
“He does a great job of getting his defender in front of him and driving him off the ball,” he continued. “His pass-blocking technique is something that is really well-developed that you don’t see too often out of high school players.”
Friedman and Rivals.com recently named Wright as their No. 5 overall prospect and the No. 1 offensive tackle nationally for the Class of 2019. That five-star rating makes Wright the highest-rated player to ever come out of West Virginia.
Huntington High coach Billy Seals didn’t mince words when speaking of the 6-foot-6, 290-pound junior phenom.
“I just finished my 18th year of coaching and by far his potential — athletically, size, the whole nine yards — is better than any kid we’ve coached,” Seals said. “We were very fortunate to have a kid like Billy Ross in the last few years, but it says a lot about Billy Ross that, when he graduated, he said, ‘Darnell will make everybody forget about me. That’s how good Darnell Wright is.’ That came from Billy Ross, so that’s high praise.”
While Wright has been scary on the field, the most scary aspect to his game is that it is only beginning.
Wright was a linebacker in youth football and did not play in middle school.
When he came to the high school level, he thought he was going to play tight end, but his size and athleticism prompted Seals and staff to move him to the left tackle spot, which put him up front with Ross.
Wright credited Ross, who is now a lineman at North Carolina, with helping him adapt to the new position and reach a high level at the position quickly.
“My sophomore year, I started playing left tackle and he played tackle, too, so he taught me a lot of the steps and a lot of technical stuff to get me started,” Wright said. “I stuck to it pretty easily.”
While his frame is perfect for an offensive lineman, it is Wright’s footwork and athleticism that make him such a coveted prospect for the Highlanders.
“I like to maul people and get in there and get physical, but I can put a little finesse on it, too, and that makes it that much better,” Wright said. “I like to get after one quickly and get them out of the way and keep moving. With someone like Jadon, he can make cuts in the second level, so I tried to get there and get him a block.”
Seals added that Wright’s ability to perform in both the run and pass protection set him apart from other linemen.
“His pass protection is very, very good and that’s one of the things college coaches are salivating over,” Seals said. “And in our gap-zone scheme, he did a nice job of getting movement on the D-lineman, then he was so athletic that he could get to the second level very easy. That just speaks volumes for him.”
Wright’s presence wasn’t just on the offensive side of the football, either.
Wright finished with 48 tackles, including 14 for loss, with 2.5 sacks a forced fumble and four pass breakups.
His ability to track down plays from the backside and leap in the air to deflect passes also caught the eye of Friedman, who said in a recent video on Rivals that he hadn’t seen much tape on Wright as a defender prior to recently.
“When you watch the film, you see this athleticism from him that is just off-the-charts,” Friedman said. “He’s out there playing in space, he’s knocking down passes at the line of scrimmage by leaping up in the air. For a guy his size, that’s something that’s really impressive.”
Seals said that, with each camp, combine and practice, Wright is improving because he’s so young in the game and young, in general.
Most juniors are 16 or 17-years-old, but Wright just turned 16 in the early stages of the football season, making him a young junior, at that.
“He’s only played the offensive line for two years, so he’s still a very, very raw football player, but he continues to get better with each practice, game and camp,” Seals said.
Wright finished ahead of Spring Valley’s Doug Nester, an Ohio State commit who is also a top-100 prospect at No. 89 overall, in voting for the award, marking the second-straight year Huntington and Spring Valley had representatives in the top two spots.
Last season, Spring Valley’s Riley Locklear, now an offensive lineman at Tennessee won the Stydahar Award over Ross, who is now at North Carolina.
“It’s a healthy rivalry and I think those guys respect each other’s ability, but they also want to whip each other’s tail,” Seals said. “That is very good to have two really good players in this area to push one another. It’s only going to make those guys better for what lies ahead at the next level.”
Fairmont Senior’s Dante Stills, a West Virginia commit, finished third while Martinsburg’s Jalen Hesen, who had 19 tackles along the defensive line in the Bulldogs’ Class AAA championship win, finished fourth.
The Stydahar Award is sponsored by the Clarksburg Exponent-Telegram and it will be presented to Wright at the annual Victory Award Dinner on May 6 at the Embassy Suites in Charleston.