By Matt Carli and Rob Carli
Weslye Saunders, the former South Carolina tight end on the 2010 Mackey watch list is back, prepared for the April 28 NFL draft after a season-long hiatus following his dismissal from the team last September.
Saunders, who cheered for his teammates from the stands last season, now trains twice a day, six days a week outside Dallas, Texas at the Michael Johnson Performance Center. He’s joined by first-round projected running back Mikel Leshoure from Illinois, along with University of Miami cornerback Brandon Harris.
Last August, 22-year-old Saunders was poised for a breakout senior season. The 6-foot-5, 270-pounder, now down to 260 pounds, left 718 career yards and six touchdown on the field after the undisclosed violation of team rules that left him on the outside looking in.
Saunders’ negative spotlight in the media began with an NCAA investigation in July 2010 that he received improper benefits along with University of North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin.
Then, while wrapped up in one NCAA investigation, Saunders’ name surfaced again in the Whitney Hotel scandal. After being advised to leave by coach Steve Spurrier, several other players agreed to move out while Saunders reportedly continued to stay. His 2010 season was over shortly after.
His next step was to fight and make amends with the fans, South Carolina athletic department, and NCAA.
“Every single week I was trying to get re-instated into the University of South Carolina (football team),” Saunders said.
“I felt like I had made a huge mistake. I wanted to show them that I learned my lesson and I did everything in my power to try and get re-instated. I met with NCAA for the third time on my own ticket. I actually paid my own way to Indianapolis, Ind. to meet them at their headquarters. I came back and tried to meet with our athletic director… I wrote numerous letters… I was still in school and never dropped out of school. I went to every home game to show my teammates my support.”
Saunders says he remained close with several teammates, including Stephen Garcia and Jason Barnes, while also showing his support other ways.
“You can check my Facebook statuses from June and July when I said ‘Gamecock fans be ready, we’re going to the SEC championship,’” he said. “Everybody was like ‘oh that’s so great to have that kind of enthusiasm,’ but I literally knew that we were going to the SEC championship.”
Saunders kept his hopes of rejoining the team alive, while also focused on his goal to play in the NFL.
“I kept working out because I was very optimistic that I would get re-instated and that I could receive that phone call telling me that I was re-instated,” he said. “I didn’t care if I came back for one game or two games. I wanted to come back to show my remorse and show them that I was sorry for what I did…It didn’t work out that way.”
Then his path to land on a pro team roster took another wrong turn after breaking a bone in his foot at the combine in late February.
“To break a bone in my foot at the most important time of my life was devastating,” Saunders said.
The injury, though, is not uncommon according to Saunders, and it also happened recently to San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree and Alabama’s Julio Jones.
“After talking to NFL trainers it’s a very common injury that can be repaired quickly with a recovery time of about 4 to 6 weeks, so it’s not that big of a deal,” Saunders said.
But he remains optimistic despite a season off the field, and the recent injury.
Saunders plans on participating in South Carolina’s pro day on March 30, after being granted permission by coach Spurrier to attend. He also says he’s in the best shape of his life.
“I believe that if I go out and show what I can do at pro day that a lot of NFL teams would be willing to give me that chance,” he said.
Saunders’ rare blend of size and speed have allowed him to become one of the most successful tight ends in the history of the Gamecock football program. Before the 2010 season, he was considered a “can’t-miss-prospect” by NFL scouts and football analysts.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that I could’ve have gone first round,” Saunders said.
“Yah know coach Spurrier can be very stingy with the compliments. Before the season was going on and we were still practicing coach Spurrier said he didn’t know what was going on with the investigation, but said ‘Weslye was in the best shape of his life, he’s down to 260 something and he’s working hard’ and I appreciated that.”
Saunders could possibly be the biggest question mark in the 2011 NFL draft. He’s still confident he could be a first-day pick with the right team. Most projections, though, have Saunders pegged as a later round pick because of character issues.
“I think first and foremost they know I didn’t play this past season, but going into the season some people had me ranked the No. 1 tight end in the country, some had me ranked number 2,” Saunders said. “I’m still the same player I was before, just a lot more mature.”