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Jimmy Hyams: Tennessee has found found the Wright chemistry

Darnell Wright has made a lot of money this season – and I’m not talking about Name, Image and Likeness deals.

Tennessee’s senior right tackle is finally playing like the five-star recruit he was coming out of Huntington, W.Va.

Wright did an outstanding job in pass protection against Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr., projected by some to be the top pick in the 2023 NFL draft. Anderson is a ferocious pass rusher who has been a one-man wrecking crew in several games throughout his star-studded career at Alabama.

Wright also did a solid job blocking against LSU, which has several NFL caliber players on its front four.

“Darnell Wright is as good a tackle as there is in the game,’’ said Vols offensive line coach Glen Elarbee as third-ranked UT (7-0) prepares to take on No. 19 Kentucky (6-2) Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.

That’s a massive comment for a tackle who had underachieved for three years.

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Wright’s play has caught the attention of his teammates.

“I think Darnell has changed himself completely as a football player,’’ said center Cooper Mays, noting that Wright is playing his natural position at right tackle after toiling at left tackle last year.

“I think Darnell is one of the best tackles in the country. He’s a very rare athlete. You can’t find many people his size who can move that well. …  I think the (NFL) scouts will love (him) and I think it will show on draft day.’’

Because Wright has played so well, Elarbee felt confident UT could handle Anderson and Alabama’s pass rush.

“I know this sounds crazy, but before the game, everybody asked what we would do against Anderson,’’ Elarbee said. “I felt really good about where we are. … I felt good about the matchups, I really did.’’

Elarbee’s confidence was well founded.

Tennessee beat Alabama 52-49 and racked up 567 total yards – 316 more than Alabama had allowed through six games.

Elarbee loved the attitude of the Tennessee team after Alabama’s scoop and score with a fumble with 7:49 left in the game that put the Crimson Tide ahead 49-42.

“In the past, we may have panicked,’’ Elarbee said. “But the offense said, `Just get us the ball back and we’ll win this thing.’’’

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Elarbee was pleased with the run game, which produced 182 yards against Alabama’s top-ranked run defense in the SEC. He also appreciated the pass protection.

“We played our best game of the year up front,’’ Elarbee said. “We pushed the pile.”

“The first thing I did when I got to the office Sunday was I went to running back coach Jerry Mack’s office and said, `your guys rank hard, violent.’’’

Elarbee liked the way left tackle JJ Crawford played.

“He left everything on the field,’’ Elarbee cracked, aware that Crawford threw up during one series in the fourth quarter. “It was JC’s best game of the year, for sure.’’

Elarbee said the offensive line has continued building and building and building.

“There was never a moment on the sideline where we couldn’t grab their attention,’’ Elarbee said.

Entering this season, I felt UT had two weaknesses: Offensive line and secondary.

The secondary is last in the SEC and in the bottom 98-percent in the nation in yards allowed per game.

But the offensive line has been a pleasant surprise.

It got the best of Alabama.

It got the best of LSU.

It’s not always dominant, but for the most part, it has been efficient.

Efficient enough to help Tennessee lead the nation in scoring and total offense.

It faces another challenge this Saturday against Kentucky.

The Wildcats rank second in the SEC in scoring defense and total defense.

But Kentucky also allowed Tennessee to score 45 points with less than 14 minutes time of possession last year.

If Tennessee gets 45 again on Kentucky, the offensive line will have done its job.

And found the Wright chemistry.

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