Renaissance of the tight end
South Carolina football fans got a small glimpse of what an effective tight end can do in a Steve Spurrier offense last season when USC's trio of tight ends combined to catch 51 balls. The re-emergence of the tight end as a threat in the passing game of a South Carolina offense was sparked by the play of talented, then-sophomore Jared Cook. Cook's 30 catches were good for third on the team. Freshman Weslye Saunders added 12 on his way to freshman All-SEC honors, while the always steady Andy Boyd added nine catches of his own.
If the first week and a half of spring practice is any indication, those numbers may only be the tip of the iceberg for what USC's tight ends are capable of. All three are back, though Andy Boyd has traded in his pads and jersey for a whistle and clipboard as a graduate assistant.
The absence of Boyd on the playing field leaves Cook and Saunders as the Gamecocks' dynamic duo at tight end. Despite his limited catches during his career, new tight end's coach Ray Rychleski says Boyd is harder to replace than his production may suggest.
"I've told Andy to see if he can get a seventh year in college; he had a pretty good gig going. But, we've got to replace Andy Boyd. That's harder to replace than maybe anybody else on this football team, because he was a tough guy. We've got to get tougher. We're definitely athletic; we've got to get tougher."
As hard as Boyd will be to replace, Rychleski was mostly happy with Boyd and Saunders' performance during Saturday's scrimmage. They combined to catch three touchdowns.
"Pass receiving they did outstanding. I don't know if they had a drop, and they made some touchdowns," Rychleski said. "They competed. They really came out with the attitude that this was an important day and it was like a game. Quite obviously, we missed a couple of blocking assignments."
The veteran of the group, Cook has gone through his growing pains. While he says he is more comfortable than he once was, he believes with Rychleski that there's always room for improvement.
"It's a lot different," Cook said about his knowledge of the offense now compared to his freshman year. "Now that I've gotten a chance to grow up in (the offense), there are still some new plays I've got to learn. (I've) still got to learn how to block… got to learn some assignments. My job isn't done yet. (I'm) still getting better everyday, still trying to learn."
It is that type of attitude that could make the talented tight ends one of the best duos at their position in the Southeastern Conference. Coach Rychleski has already seen noted improvement in their overall play.
"I wouldn't say a lot, but definitely (some) improvement," Rychleski said of their blocking ability. "They're getting the idea that the only way we're going to be successful is if we can run the ball, too. So, I think in their heads they want to all catch passes, but they know they have to block and they have shown improvement."
The younger of the two stars, Saunders is at an earlier point in his learning curve than Cook is right now. While Saunders is still learning, he says he has already made an important change in his mindset.
"Last year I thought blocking was secondary and catching was the only thing that mattered. But this year I've kind of gotten to understand it where it's blocking first, then it's catching. So, that has to be the biggest improvement," Saunders said.
Saunders has also made notable improvement in his commitment to the program and it has paid off. The sophomore North Carolina native looks noticeably leaner than he was last year, and is listed at 273 pounds — a full ten pounds less than his freshman season.
"That was my first winter workout," Saunders said with an expression to suggest being glad they were over. "It was pretty tough to start off with, but I got the hang of it. I bought into the work ethic thing. Personally, I believe my work ethic has gotten better, 100 percent. I think that's been a huge help for me."
While Rychleski wasn't at South Carolina yet last season, he has already noticed the changes in his young, budding star's attitude.
"From what they've told me he was a little bit (of an) easy-going, laissez-faire kind of guy. I don't see that from Weslye. I see an attitude that he wants to be really good. He's got that basketball out of him. I told him if he wants to be a basketball player, go to March Madness. But he wants to be a football player," Rychleski said.
The humble Saunders has noticed what Rychleski has done for him in such a short time span, and gives his new coach a ton of credit.
"He's probably one of the toughest coaches I've ever had to deal with. But I think that's what I needed. He's been able to push me. I'm not taking any plays off. I think he's been a big help to me. And anything I do I'll probably have to owe it to him, because he's pushing me a lot harder than anybody has ever pushed me before," Saunders said.
Saunder's running-mate, Cook, echoed his glowing review of Rychleski.
"He's a great coach. He knows what he's talking about. He's real patient with us, teaches us. I think he encourages us a lot," Cook said. "When he's amped up, it makes us want to get amped up and play harder."
When asked about the combination of he and Saunders being on the field at the same time, Cook stopped just short of saying they were impossible to cover.
"I don't know about that. But with his talent and my talent, if we can just come together as an offense, and us two get together, anything is possible," Cook said. "Both of us have speed. We're big, physical. Both of us can get off blocks. It's just, we both complement each other real well."
Saunders offered his own description of what the two can provide the USC offense while on the field at the same time.
"I think we can create a few mismatch problems (for the defense). With him being 6-4 and I'm 6-5. He runs a 4.3 (forty-yard dash), and I think I can catch pretty well," Saunders said.
"It's like lightning and thunder. He brings the speed and I bring the big body."
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