Tight end duo making their name

Saunders and Cook show off their skills and a new moniker in USC’s first scrimmage

jperson@thestate.com March 30, 2008 

What their nickname lacks in originality, Weslye Saunders and Jared Cook have made up for in productivity this spring.

The South Carolina tight ends, who have adopted the “Thunder and Lightning” moniker used by Clemson tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller, turned in another impressive performance Saturday, combining for seven receptions and all three touchdowns in the Gamecocks’ first spring scrimmage.

The 6-foot-5, 273-pound Saunders pulled down four passes for 49 yards and a score, while Cook (6-5, 242) had three catches for 26 yards and a pair of touchdowns during the 90-minute, 95-play scrimmage at Williams-Brice Stadium.

“Personally, I believe we create a lot of mismatch problems for the defense. Most people compare (us) to the thunder and lightning,” Saunders said. “He runs a 4.3 (in the 40-yard dash), and I’m a big body out there. So I think we complement each other real well.”

But USC coach Steve Spurrier would like to see a little more thunder from his tight end duo.

“They’re some of our best receivers. They need to block also, though,” Spurrier said. “Sometimes they forget that. Tight ends are supposed to block, as well as catch passes.”

Saunders, a rising sophomore from Durham, N.C., caught 12 passes for 151 yards last fall. Cook, a junior from Suwanee, Ga., was the Gamecocks’ third-leading receiver in 2007 with 30 receptions for 421 yards and a touchdown.

Their athleticism gives Spurrier several options, including splitting them out wide to present problems for defenses accustomed to running plays out of double-tight end sets.

First-year tight ends coach Ray Rychleski appreciates the confidence of Saunders and Cook: “When they step on the field, they think every pass is for them,” he said.

But Rychleski said they have to play more physical to fill the void left by Andy Boyd, who finally exhausted his eligibility after six years with the Gamecocks.

“We’ve got to replace Andy Boyd. That’s harder to replace than maybe anybody else on that football team because he was a tough guy,” Rychleski said of Boyd, now a Gamecocks’ graduate assistant. “We’re definitely athletic. We’ve got to get tougher.”

Saunders, whose father is a columnist for the News & Observer in Raleigh, said he and Cook are trying to get stronger in the trenches.

“I think we’re starting to get the concept of that, but we’re not all the way there, yet,” he said.

But their pass-catching talents were on display again Saturday for the 800 or so fans in attendance.

After the Gamecocks’ offense was held without a touchdown the first part of the scrimmage, Cook and Saunders became the focal points when USC worked on its red-zone offense.

Cook kept his concentration and hauled in a 20-yard scoring strike from Chris Smelley that freshman cornerback Akeem Auguste tipped in the end zone. Smelley and Cook hooked up again the next series for a 1-yard score on fourth-and-goal.

Saunders, who scored on a 12-yard pass from Tommy Beecher, held on for a 19-yard catch in traffic to convert a third-and-16.

Plays like those have prompted USC defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to call Saunders and Cook NFL prospects. In the meantime, Smelley wants to take full advantage of Thunder and Lightning.

“Jared, he’s tall. He can jump. He creates a lot of mismatches. So he’s a guy you can always go to,” Smelley said. “Weslye, you can fit it into any tight, little spot and he’ll hold on to it and take a hit. He’s a big guy, so it doesn’t really bother him.

“They’ve both played real well this spring.”

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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