Since the departure of Weslye Saunders before the 2010 season, South Carolina's tight end position has been overhauled. While Saunders and before him, Jared Cook, were physical freaks of nature that could block and catch passes with equal grace, the Gamecocks have since gone to a one-or-the-other scenario.
With Saunders, an expected key piece of the team throughout spring practice and the summer, was bounced in the early days of preseason camp, the Gamecocks adjusted on the fly. Then-sophomore Justice Cunningham was installed to replace Saunders' size on the end of the offensive line, but if a play was designed for the tight end, it was usually going to fullback/H-back hybrid Patrick DiMarco.
DiMarco caught 15 passes for 147 yards and three touchdowns in 2010 while Cunningham was mostly regarded as a blocker, although he did have seven catches. Coming into 2011, the starting job is Cunningham's with DiMarco gone, but there may be some competition.
Freshmen tight ends Rory "Buster" Anderson and Drew Owens are bidding for early playing time, position coach Jay Graham said on Tuesday. Either of the two keeps performing over the next week as the No. 12 Gamecocks continue to prepare for East Carolina, one could be Cunningham's backup - or the new DiMarco.
"Buster has made some big catches and Drew has made some good blocks and did some good things," Graham said. "We have to see who can do everything."
Cunningham won't be just a blocker for a couple of reasons. The first is that he's got good hands that are only getting better, and it wasn't a knock on him that DiMarco always got first look last year. It was a case of DiMarco had been around for four years and the coaches knew what he could do, plus he had the long-standing natural chemical connection with quarterback Stephen Garcia.
Cunningham's specialty is blocking, but his offensive abilities are coming around. Of course he'd like the opportunity to show it.
"Everybody would like that, but as long as we're winning, I'm all right," he said last year.
"He takes pride in catching the ball, and that's the thing he wants to be," former position coach Jeep Hunter said, also last year. "He says, 'The passes that are thrown to me, I want to take advantage of.' We split DiMarco and Justice out; you just haven't seen it as much because we haven't had to use it as much at certain times in the game."
But Owens and Anderson are showing off some solid pass-catching abilities, even as their pass-blocking is still in the development stage. Although it was high school, the two combined for 63 catches over their senior years.
Cunningham should start, as he's an excellent blocker and the Gamecocks will no doubt want to unleash a few deep throws, especially if the Pirates' pass-happy offense puts up a quick six points. And it's likely he gets a ball or two thrown at him, even if it's as a safety-valve option instead of a designed play.
"I don't think I play just to block, but that's what I really take pride in, because I came from my high school and that's about all I did," Cunningham said. "I got to take pride in it."
But he'll need a backup, and one of the two freshmen could be it. The redshirt option is always looked on as a favor in the fourth or fifth year; when it's being discussed in the first year after playing almost every down in high school, not so much.