While South Carolina would never be considered Tight End U, when I started considering names for my Top 5, there were at least nine worthy candidates. Here are the five I settled on.
At No. 1 is one of my first Gamecock football heroes as a student – J.R. Wilburn (1963-65), who was considered more of a split end, but he was an excellent blocker when he lined up tight.
Wilburn was Carolina's leading receiver in 1964 (21 for 236 yds) and '65 (38 for 562 yds), and he is 26th on the career receiving list (70 for 951 yds). He was named to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference team and finished his senior year with the second most catches (38) in the ACC. He was also awarded runner-up ACC Athlete of the Year and Honorable Mention All-American.
A quadruple threat in track, Wilburn earned the most points ever scored in a dual-meet against North Carolina. In 1965, he was named South Carolina’s Athlete of the Year and Virginia Beach Sports Club’s Outstanding College Football Player from the Commonwealth of Virginia.
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Wilburn set a game record of 10 receptions in the 1965 Blue-Gray game. He was also named to Alabama’s National Championship All-Opponent team that year. He was drafted by Pittsburgh. In 1967, he led the Steelers in receiving with 51 receptions for 767 yards and 5 touchdowns, and he set a single game pass-catching record of 12 that stood for 31 years. After five years with the Steelers, he was traded to San Diego and played one year before a leg injury ended his career.
Wilburn was inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in 2004.
What I admired most about Wilburn was how easy he made catching the ball look. He ran like a gazelle, and Dan Reeves throwing and J.R. catching was a thing of beauty.
At No. 2 is Willie Scott (1977-80), who led the Gamecocks in receiving in 1980 (34 for 409 yds). He's tied with Wilburn for the 26th spot on the USC career receiving list (70 for 896 yds).
Scott was drafted in the first-round of the 1981 NFL Draft (the 14th pick overall) by the Kansas City Chiefs. He played with K.C. from 1981 to 1985 and also with the New England Patriots from 1986 to 1988. During his career he caught 89 passes for 766 yards and made 15
Scott was inducted into the South Carolina Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006.
What I remember most about Scott is that he was one of the first “tough guys” at the position for the Gamecocks. He would make that tough over-the-middle catch and drag tacklers with him.
Justice Cunningham (2009-2012) is No. 3 on my list because he made more big catches than any tight end in memory.
The Pageland native played as a true freshman and during his first two years he had a total of nine receptions for 115 yards. He doubled those numbers as a junior in 1011 with 18 grabs for 142 yards.
Cunningham saved his best for his last season with 23 catches for 324 yards, an average of 14.1 yards a grab. He made one catch in the season opener against Vanderbilt, but it was for 20 yards and a crucial third down in a 17-13 win. He had four catches in the win against Missouri and six crucial receptions for 108 yards in the 38-35 victory against Tennessee.
Every time the Gamecocks needed a big play, Cunningham, a team captain last season, made that crucial catch. He was also important to the offense because of his blocking ability.
Cunningham was drafted in the seventh round of the NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts. He was the second “Mr. Irrelevant” in a row for the Colts and the second to make their roster.
At No. 4 is Mathew Campbell (1990-93). A native of North Augusta, he was a member of the North Augusta High 4A state championship team and was selected to the Shrine Bowl team. He was a four-year letterman at USC.
Campbell caught one pass as a freshman, eight as sophomore (despite missing three games with an injury), and 10 for 115 yards as a junior. In eight games his senior year, he caught five passes for 43 yards.
Those are not overwhelming stats but there were two factors: the Gamecocks were 18-24-2 during his four seasonsand the tight ends were not featured in Sparky Woods' offense. So Campbell became an excellent blocker.
What I remember most about Campbell was his tremendous heart. He played with intensity despite battling an ankle injury most of his career.
My No. 5 pick is Chris Corley (1981-84). The Irmo native was the leading receiver on the 1982 team with 24 receptions. He caught just one pass in '83, as the Gamecocks went to the veer offense under coach Joe Morrison.
Corley rebounded with 19 catches for 389 yards, and three touchdowns in the “Black Magic” 1984 season. An indication of how committed Carolina was to the run, Corley was the leading receiver in the 36-32 win against Notre Dame with one catch for 31 yards. In the 35-28 victory against N.C. State, he had a 61-yard TD catch.
What I remember most about Corley, is that he was recruited to be a major target in the passing game, but he quickly became a devastating blocker in the veer offense.