Spring wrap-up: Tight ends

South Carolina fans got a small look at what the tight end can do in Steve Spurrier's offense last season when starter Jared Cook hauled in 30 passes for 421 yards and three touchdowns. If the spring was any indication, Gamecock fans and USC opponents alike will get an even bigger look at the Gamecock tight ends this fall as Cook and sophomore Weslye Saunders are back and poised for big years.

The 6'5", 242 pound Cook entered South Carolina as a "tweener" who struggled to find a position during his first two years of college. The Suwanee, Ga. native showed the mismatches he was capable of during his redshirt freshman season, when he ran straight down the seam for a huge touchdown catch in a thriller against Auburn. But Cook and fans would remember his drop on a potential game tying touchdown just moments later rather than the big catch.

The rangy receiver would continue to go back and forth between tight end and wide receiver before finding a comfortable home at tight end last summer. After a solid redshirt sophomore year, Cook looks more confident than ever, and was practically uncoverable during the spring. Cook has taken to the coaching of new tight ends coach Ray Rychleski and not only provides mismatch problems for linebackers and safeties, but has shown great ball skills and the ability to use his frame to go over defenders when the coverage is there. Too fast for linebackers and too big for safeties, Cook should be a red zone machine for the Gamecocks this season.

Joining Cook to create arguably the most dangerous receiving tight end combo in the conference is true sophomore Weslye Saunders. As a freshman Saunders showed his freakish athletic ability catching 12 passes while playing at an offensive-tackle sized 283 pounds. While Saunders showed flashes of brilliance in big plays such as a 48-yard catch and rumble against Kentucky, he also made freshman mistakes such as a goal-line fumble on the same play. While there were rumors Saunders was not happy in Columbia following the 2007 season, like Cook, Saunders has taken to the coaching style of Rychleski and has dedicated himself to doing the little things right.

Although Saunders is not as fast as Cook, he is bigger, and has made a living in practice using his wide frame to shield off defenders and secure the ball. Saunders, a former basketball player, shows off some of his hardwood skills on the gridiron as he naturally boxes out defenders like a center going for a rebound. One thing that doesn't come naturally to him, according to Saunders, is catching balls in traffic. Saunders says he has worked on making the tough catch since his high school days, and it seems to have paid off as the Riverside (N.C.) graduate displayed an astounding ability to make difficult catches with defenders draped on him throughout the spring. Saunders came up big in third down situations in practices and in scrimmages, so look for him to become a third-down favorite of whoever the Gamecocks' signal-caller is this fall.

Saunders and Cook together will create mismatches for opposing defenses, so don't be surprised to see them on the field at the same time often, especially in red zone situations. Using two-tight end sets will almost guarantee that in man coverages at least one of the ends will get matched up with a linebacker. The two-tight end set will also allow the Gamecocks to get their four biggest threats in the passing game (Cook, Saunders, Kenny McKinley, and Dion Lecorn) on the field at one time. The Gamecocks' problems in short-yardage situations on the o-line as well as the natural field compression offenses face inside the ten will make Cook and Saunders extremely appetizing targets in those tough first and goal from the eight-yard line type situations.

As good as Cook and Saunders can be, Rychleski wants the two standouts to get better as overall players. Both have worked hard at becoming better blockers during the spring, but a big offseason in the weight room as well as a productive fall could only make the duo even better. While Cook will never have the body type to be an excellent blocker, he has shown a willingness to give 100 percent in blocking drills in an attempt to get better, something that tight ends who consider themselves "receivers" don't always do. Saunders has the frame to be the better blocker of the two, but is still raw and still has some baby fat. Cook and Saunders have both also learned from former USC tight end and blocking speciliast Andy Boyd, who is now a graduate assistant.

While Boyd is helping Cook and Saunders' blocking ability from the sideline, he will be missed on the field as the Gamecocks look to replace one of their best blockers from a year ago. If Cook and Saunders are to be on the field at one time, they will need a third tight end, preferably a blocking tight end, to give the two stars a rest and play in blocking situations. Former fullback Clark Gaston has the potential to be that guy, and even wears the familiar no. 80 jersey Boyd wore for so many years, but Rychleski said in a previous interview that Gaston still has a ways to go. At 6'2", 244 pounds Gaston will also need to pack on the pounds during the summer conditioning program to have a real shot at earning that third position on the depth chart.

The Gamecocks may get there answer from another former fullback as Spurrier spoke candidly after the Garnet and Black game about moving Pat DiMarco to tight end. While also undersized for the spot, DiMarco is a hard-nosed player who has already improved by leaps and bounds since being in Columbia. Rychleski is familiar with DiMarco as he utilizes him as his punter's "personal protector" on special teams. Rychleski seems to love DiMarco's attitude, and with a productive offseason the fast-learning Altamonte Springs, Fla. native could be the Gamecocks third tight end as well as their first string fullback this year.

Freshman Mike Triglia will join the Gamecocks in the summer, and has the potential to one day be an all-around player at tight end. The Jacksonville, Fla. native will likely redshirt to get bigger this year though. Nick Prochak would be battling for a spot on the depth chart, as well, but the former Spartanburg QB broke his leg in a recent moped accident and missed the entire spring.

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