Saunders aiming to become a "complete" TE
Saunders was a Freshman All-SEC performer last season, when he caught 12 passes for 151 yards. However, his love for fast food slowed him down, literally and figuratively, as his weight ballooned. Now he enters the season weighing around 260 pounds.
"I only lost about 10 pounds," Saunders says, "but as far as reshaping my body, I think that is the biggest difference; cutting out some of that ‘baby fat,' as they call it. I've done a pretty good job of that, cutting out McDonald's, fast food, things like that."
Saunders' trim physique not only looks better, but feels better. Instead of lugging around a belly full of French fries, Saunders has strong legs and better conditioning.
"I feel a world of difference," he says. "I'm not getting as tired after plays, I feel like my motor's going a little bit more, and I feel a lot more comfortable out there."
That increased comfort level is not due solely to weight loss, though. Saunders also spent the summer working on his agility. He felt sluggish in his pass routes last season, so with the help of strength and conditioning coach Mark Smith, Saunders focused on sharpening his cutting ability.
"Last year I felt like when I ran routes it was hard for me to stop and cut, so I've been working on my footwork and my agility," says Saunders. "I'm more comfortable running routes and stuff now."
Of course, route running and pass-catching was already a strong point for Saunders. Like starter Jared Cook, the knock on Saunders is his blocking ability. Until he becomes a better blocker, tight ends coach Ray Rychleski will be forced to pull Saunders in running situations, and use fullback/tight end Pat DiMarco as a designated blocker.
"He's improving," Rychleski says. "He's not consistent. At times he looks really good and at times he wants to take plays off. If you take plays off, we've got another guy, DiMarco, we can put in there."
The criticism is no shock to Saunders, who readily admits he has to improve his blocking. He worked on blocking over the summer and continues to focus on blocking this fall. Rychleski has made blocking a point of emphasis for Saunders, and although he may get tired of hearing about that area of his game, Saunders has been receptive to the coaching.
"That's the only thing he [cares about], passing to him is secondary," Saunders says of Rychleski. "That's all he talks about is blocking: making the right assignments and blocking the right person. I think we've been doing a better job of that. We're not where we want to be at, but we're just continually getting better."
Naturally, Rychleski sees things differently.
"Let him play, I'll coach," Rychleski says about Saunders' comments. "I want him to be a total tight end. I want to use his talents, and I know what his talents are: his receiving. You work on your weakness, and his weakness is blocking."
That is not to suggest there is a rift between player and coach, however. Saunders and Rychleski are on the same page, along with Spurrier. They all realize that, along with Cook, Saunders is a top notch receiving threat. The next step is to become a strong blocker and thus the complete package.
"We're pretty good pass-catching, if I do say so myself," Saunders says. "I think the coaches know that, but as soon as we're able to get that blocking down to a science we'll become, quote-unquote, the complete tight end."
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