Gamecocks move on without Saunders

South Carolina Athletics Director Eric Hyman announced Wednesday afternoon that senior tight end Weslye Saunders had been dismissed from the football program. When the Gamecocks took to the practice fields Wednesday, it was without the dark cloud of that situation hanging over their heads.

Hyman released the following statement: "Weslye Saunders is no longer part of our football program. Beyond that I will have no further comment." The 6'5, 250-pound senior was suspended for a violation of team rules on August 23rd, reportedly lying to coaches as to why he was late to a scrimmage and has not seen the field since.

After Wednesday's practice, Spurrier had very little to say about Saunders, but did say the following: "As many of you have heard, Weslye Saunders is not a member of our team anymore, and that's about all we need to say about it," Spurrier said following practice. "We wish him the best in whatever he does after this. He's on scholarship through the year and hopefully he'll stay and graduate."

Gamecock receiver Tori Gurley said that the team will miss Saunders, but it's time to move on and time for other guys to step up and contribute.

"We're gonna miss Wes, but we have to move on," Gurley said. "We have guys that's gonna step up in the tight end role and continue to work hard. I just pray that Weslye does everything he's supposed to do and wish him the best."

Saunders' difficulties began during the summer when the NCAA began investigating Saunders and his connection to a party in Miami that was allegedly hosted by an NFL agent. The NCAA looked to find out whether Saunders attended the party during spring break of 2009 with close friend Marvin Austin, a defensive lineman at North Carolina, and who paid for the trip if he did. The investigation began when the NCAA caught wind of a 'tweet' from Austin about the party.

As it turned out, that was only the tip of the iceberg for Saunders and the Gamecock football team. During Saunders' investigation it was discovered that he had been staying at the Whitney Hotel for quite some time. It was then discovered that several other Gamecock players were living at the Whitney Hotel and had accrued a deficit. None were reportedly higher than Saunders' deficit that was over $5,000. It was reported that all but left tackle Jarriel King had paid their balance prior to the season-opener against Southern Miss and were eligible to play against the Golden Eagles. King was cleared late last week and was eligible for the Georgia game.

The NCAA also questioned freshman running back Marcus Lattimore for "improper benefits" prior to the Southern Miss game, but he was quickly cleared. Cornerback Chris Culliver was investigated for an insurance policy he took out prior to the season. He was forced to sit out the Southern Miss game but was cleared last week and started against the Bulldogs. As of Friday, September 10th, every player involved in the investigation had been cleared except Saunders.

The Saunders ordeal hit rock bottom early last week when the university received an official letter of inquiry from the NCAA for possible violations within the football program. Coach Spurrier had no comment after receiving the letter but did not seem worried at all.

Spurrier later said that he was sure no coaches were involved in any illegal action and was certain that the NCAA inquiry did not involve the coaching staff. The language of the inquiry led most to believe that it only included Saunders' contact with the agent and the Whitney Hotel and included no new information the NCAA may have received.

On Tuesday at his weekly press conference, Spurrier was asked if he had any new details on the Saunders situation and if Saunders had been practicing with the team. Spurrier said that he didn't have any new information and said that Saunders had not been practicing with the team since his suspension.

The Saunders saga appears to have officially come to an end Wednesday afternoon with the announcement that his career at USC was over. While his career may not have lived up to the expectations of many Gamecock fans, Saunders did put up some decent numbers.

In his freshman campaign in 2007 Saunders was a Freshman All-SEC member by the Sporting News and was also an Honorable Mention Freshman All-American by the Sporting News. He was a third-team Freshman All-American by Saunders played in 11 of 12 games and caught 12 passes for 151 yards, including a career-long 48-yard reception against Kentucky before having the ball dislodged from his hands at the goal line.

During his sophomore season, Saunders caught 16 passes for 214 yards and three touchdowns. He made his first career start against Wofford. He had his best game of the season in the finale against Clemson, catching 4 passes for 58 yards and a 23-yard touchdown reception against the Tigers. He was also named the Most Improved Tight End during the spring prior to his junior season.

With the way he concluded his sophomore season and his award during the Spring, many were expecting Saunders to have a break-out 2009 campaign. He was on the preseason Mackey Watch List, but never lived up to those lofty expectations. He finished the season with 32 receptions for 353 yards and three touchdowns, but he didn't really come on until the last part of the season. All three of his touchdowns were scored in the final two regular season games against Florida and Clemson.

Saunders decided not to go pro and to return for his final season at Carolina. Some teammates said that Saunders had become one of the leaders during preseason work-outs and once again appeared prime for a big season and a significant rise in his draft status. With Wednesday's announcement, Saunders and the rest of the Gamecock Nation will be left wondering what could have been.

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