With their ability to catch the football, tight ends Jared Cook and Weslye Saunders are transforming the tight end position at South Carolina.
But new tight ends coach Ray Rychleski makes one thing very clear: he doesn't want one-dimensional players on the football field.
That's why when spring practice opens March 19 Rychleski will focus intently on improving the blocking skills of Cook and Saunders to make them more polished players.
"If you want to be a complete tight end and you want to go to the next level, you have to be able to run block and you have to be able to pass protect," said Rychleski, who also serves as the special teams coordinator. "Right now, the tight ends have to buy into the fact we have to get tougher. Toughness wins. When the other team says 'Ouch', you have them right where you want them. Tough guys win in football."
After years of the tight end position serving mainly as a blocker, Cook finished third on the team in receptions last season with 30 for 421 yards and three touchdowns. Overall, he has 36 career receptions in his first two seasons, averaging 14.8 yards per completion.
The redshirt junior from Suwanee, Ga. is big (6-foot-5), fast (he's run the 40 in under 4.4 seconds) and athletic (40-inch vertical leap), making him difficult for opposing linebackers to cover in space.
"Jared has done very well in the passing game," Rychleski said. "I really like him. I think he has some football smarts to him. His maturity has really impressed me. He really wants to be good. He has very good hands. He's made a lot of big plays. He can do something with the ball after he catches it. His straight ahead speed is outstanding."
Cook spent the 2007 season in the 235 to 240 pound range, but Rychleski would like to see him add about 10-15 pounds to his frame and get his weight up around 250 pounds to help him block SEC defensive ends effectively. Rychleski also says Cook must become more flexible.
"What Jared needs to work on is his run-blocking and his pass protection," Rychleski said. "That's his thing right now. He needs to get better in those two areas. Last year, they split him out a lot and he made a lot of plays in the passing game. We had Andy Boyd last year to do the blocking, but next season it won't be that way. Guys should be able to do both things. I think he can carry 250 (pounds). Then he becomes an even better tight end."
Saunders, a physically imposing 275-pound sophomore, had 12 catches as a true freshman in 2007, including a memorable 50-yard reception against Kentucky in which he was stripped of the ball just as he was about the cross the goal line for a touchdown. Four of Saunders' receptions, one-third of his total, came against LSU on Sept. 22.
"Weslye is very nimble on his feet and he's a lot like Cook in the passing game," Rychleski said. "He has great hands and he gets down the field. Where he has to get better is missed assignments and pass protection and run-blocking. But he has all the tools."
After watching film of the former High School Player of the Year in the Raleigh-Durham area, Rychleski wishes Saunders had redshirted last season. But he didn't due to injuries and the lack of pass catching threats at the tight end spot.
"The thing I like about Weslye is he has a new attitude," Rychleski said. "He was probably thrown into the fire too quickly (in 2007). Like a lot of young guys, he wasn't ready to play last year. But out of necessity, they had to play him. He did his best, but it wasn't good enough. He has to get better. Potential-wise, there are not many 275-pound guys with the nimble feet that he has. He has some things you can't coach. But he has to have the 'want-to.'"
In terms of physical talent, Rychleski compares Saunders favorably to former Maryland tight end Vernon Davis, whom he coached during his seven seasons on the Terrapins staff. Davis, an All-ACC performer and consensus All-American, was drafted sixth overall in the 2006 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers and signed one of the richest contracts ever by a tight end.
"If Weslye can ever learn to block and pass protect, he can be unbelievable as a total tight end," Rychleski said. "Right now, he has a little bit of a basketball attitude. But this isn't a basketball-type game. It's a collision sport. You're going to get your nose bloodied and you're going up against some very nasty defensive ends. You have to block those guys."
While Cook and Saunders are atop the depth chart, the departures of Andy Boyd and Robert Pavlovic mean there could be a battle for the third tight end spot.
One surprising candidate for that role is Clark Gaston, a former fullback who has shifted to tight end during the off-season. Gaston, who joined the program in January of 2006, has been hobbled by injuries and other setbacks since he arrived in Columbia.
He underwent season-ending left shoulder surgery in 2006. He didn't play as a redshirt freshman last season. Rychleski hopes the position change will revive the career of the Cleveland, Tenn. product, and that he'll be able to add some much-needed depth to the position.
"We're going to take a good look at Clark at tight end," Rychleski said. "Obviously, you can't go through a season with just two tight ends. Clark is going to get a lot of reps. We'll see how he does. The jury is still out on Clark. But he has a nice body. He's definitely big enough to play the position.
"Based on what I've seen in the winter conditioning, he's been working extremely hard. He's welcomed the challenge. Like Coach Spurrier said, we're going in a new direction and that's what Clark is doing. I'm very happy for Clark right now. But he wants to be good. I think it will work out fine for him. He has a tremendous attitude."
The balance of the tight end roster is comprised of walkons Foxy Foxworth and fifth-year senior Alex McGrath. Foxworth, a former Shrine Bowl player from Wando High School in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., hopes to make an impact this season as a redshirt sophomore after watching from the sidelines his first two years with the program.
"Foxy has to get bigger, stronger and faster," Rychleski said. "But if he can learn his assignments and block some, he can have a definite role in this program. We have to have a lot of tight ends because we use them on short yardage packages and around the goal line. We need other guys (besides Cook and Saunders) to step up. I have no complaints about Foxy right now."
McGrath, who graduated from Riverside High School in Greer, has played primarily on special teams during his career with the Gamecocks.
"He's more of an H-back type guy, but he's got very good hands," Rychleski said. "We might have a place for Alex when we use the two tight end sets."
The depth at tight end suffered a blow recently when former defensive back Nick Prochak sustained serious leg injuries in a motor scooter accident. Prochak, who emerged last spring as a viable tight end prospect, won't be ready to return until the fall at the earliest.
"Our goal with Nick right now is to be ready for fall camp," Rychleski said. "That's a lofty goal because we don't know how it will all work out. Nick is an ex-quarterback playing tight end, so he's smart guy. With the accident, he's lost some weight. But he can definitely fill a role for us. If an injury happened at tight end, he could be an outstanding player for us. I know he wants to get back as fast as he can."
The depth at tight end could be bolstered in the fall by the addition of Mike Triglia of Jacksonville, Fla. Triglia brings good size (6-foot-4, 234 pounds) to the position.
Triglia caught five touchdowns passes as a senior at The Bolles School and was ranked the No. 2 tight end in the Sunshine State.
2008 SPRING TIGHT END ROSTER:
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