Hunter sees potential in returning tight ends

Despite the departure of All-SEC tight end Jared Cook, new South Carolina Tight Ends Coach Jeep Hunter is excited about the potential that he sees in USC's returning tight ends, led by junior standout Weslye Saunders. Read inside as Hunter previews the upcoming season and discusses what he expects from his tight ends this fall.

According to Steve Spurrier, Jeep Hunter was a below average golfer. And the Gamecocks' new Tight Ends Coach echoed his boss's comments by saying that he didn't quite live up to his own expectations at the Head Ball Coach's Annual Media Golf gathering last week.

However, the way that Hunter played during the golf outing was probably the least of Spurrier's worries as he enters his fifth season in charge of the South Carolina football program. The Gamecocks will have only a handful of players returning this season who have made an impact in the passing game, and losing departed tight end Jared Cook to the NFL certainly doesn't help the cause.

The star tight end grabbed NFL scouts' attention during the beginning of his sophomore year when he ran the 40-yard dash in a time of 4.37 seconds. Possessing such rare speed for a player of his size and athletic ability, Cook became a hot commodity for NFL teams after having an outstanding 2008 season that earned him All-SEC first team honors. He totaled 73 receptions for over 1,100 yards, including 7 touchdowns during his career, and was responsible for nearly a fifth of the total receiving yards that the Gamecocks accumulated last season.

Fortunately, Cook's departure doesn't leave the Gamecocks' cupboard completely bare at tight end.

The heir apparent and clear favorite to take over Cook's spot as the number one tight end for South Carolina, junior Weslye Saunders, has already been named to the Mackey Award watch list. The award is given each year to the best tight end in college football.

Entering his third season as a contributor on the offensive side of the ball, Saunders' experience and proven productivity as a receiving threat will make him one of the top weapons for USC's passing game this season. Hunter expects Saunders to continue to make a key impact as a receiving target this fall, but he acknowledges that Saunders' number one priority is to help the offense establish a running game.

"I think that Weslye will be a vital part of our offense. It's going to start with the running game because he's got to block well," Hunter emphasized. "Right now I'm extremely pleased with the way that he runs routes and catches the football. I have no doubt in my mind that Weslye can catch the football and run good routes for us. The biggest challenge for him right now is to help us run the football."

Many around the South Carolina program believe that Saunders has All-SEC potential and an NFL future if he can play to his full capability at tight end. In order to reach that potential, however, Hunter and the USC coaches have preached to Saunders the importance of working hard off the field and playing with more toughness on it. Those are lessons Hunter believes the 6-5, 280 pound tight end has taken to heart.

"He's made some strides in (those areas). He just needs to continue to work hard and improve," said Hunter.

Junior tight end Weslye Saunders tied for second on the team with three touchdown receptions last season.

Behind Saunders, there is a big drop off in experience level, with redshirt freshmen Andrew Power and Mike Triglia battling for second string tight end honors. Power, a physically impressive walk-on at 6-4 and nearly 270 pounds, holds the edge heading into fall camp because of his strength and toughness as a blocker. However, Hunter is eager to work with all of the tight ends on the roster this fall.

"Andrew Power and Mike Triglia each benefited from redshirting their first year here, and both have shown a lot of improvement this summer. Behind them we have (walk-on) Foxy Foxworth, so those are the four guys right now that are in line for us," noted Hunter.

Other than Saunders, no tight end on the current Gamecock depth chart has played a single down of collegiate football.

Due in part to the lack of experience of Saunders' supporting cast, Spurrier has proclaimed that junior defensive end Cliff Matthews, a former standout at tight end in high school, will be a two-way player for the Gamecocks this season, seeing situational time at tight end in addition to his role as a starting defensive end. The Cheraw native's toughness and stamina are traits that the head coach mentioned he plans to take advantage of this season.

"Cliff Matthews will play some there. We're going to double train Cliff (to) start at defensive end and play some tight end too. A lot of people think Cliff Matthews' ultimate position in the NFL may be tight end. He's a tough kid (who) can run all day," said the Gamecocks' head coach. "We need to find ways to get our best players on the field."

The last member of this group will be Justice Cunningham, the only tight end signed by the Gamecocks in the 2009 recruiting class. While the freshman newcomer will have a lot to learn, Hunter likes what he's heard about Cunningham's intelligence and work ethic thus far.

"Behind them we have Justice Cunningham. He's a true freshman who we have coming in, and we hope that he'll get in the mix with the other guys and push for some playing time. He seems like he's a very intelligent young man, and we think that he'll pick our system up quite well," commented Hunter.

Although the depth chart at tight end is filled with youth and inexperience outside of Saunders, Hunter is excited about the potential he sees in his players and is looking forward to helping them improve each and every day in practice.

"We've got some young talent there," Hunter said. "Guys just need to progress day by day, week by week, and month by month. We're just going to continue to work at it. You have to constantly improve every day and work in the right direction as far as getting to that championship caliber."

Even though not all of the six aforementioned tight ends are likely to see the field this year, Hunter believes that it's a necessity to have everyone in the group ready to play if needed.

"All of them," Hunter answered without any hesitation when asked how many players he needed to have ready by the start of the season in order to be successful. "You're always just one play away from an injury, so they all have to be ready to play. That's the way we're going to approach it."

In his closing remarks, the first year tight ends coach sounded anxious to roll up his sleeves and begin preparing his offensive unit for success in the upcoming season.

"I'm excited about this group. For the most part they're a young group, but they've worked hard thus far and I think if they continue to give that kind of effort we can be a pretty solid group. We're just going to have to put the ball down and play."

Hunter probably won't gain any fame for his golf game, but with positive reports on his unit coming out of the summer workouts, he surely seems to be attracting some attention for his tight ends' progress in the offseason.

We'll see if that hard work pays off on September 3rd. That's when they're going to officially put the ball down and play.

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