Tight ends played an important role in South Carolina’s win against Tennessee last weekend, and their emergence as a key component in the passing game has USC coach Steve Spurrier taking notice.
“I might name myself the tight end coach the way they’ve played,” Spurrier said after Wednesday’s practice.
Spurrier credited graduate assistant Tommy Galt with much of the coaching of the tight ends, which produced Saturday’s big performance. Senior Justice Cunningham caught six passes for 108 yards, a season-high for all USC pass-catchers. His 21-yard catch set up a late second-quarter touchdown, and his 45-yard reception set up a fourth-quarter field goal.
Sophomore Rory Anderson added three catches for 58 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown grab early in the second quarter that gave the Gamecocks a lead they would not relinquish.
“We came into the year telling ourselves we were the deepest (position) this year, and we wanted to make an impact,” Cunningham said. “We were just waiting to get the chance to do it.”
The trio of Cunningham, Anderson and freshman Jerell Adams has made a decided impact this season. Through nine games, they have combined to catch 33 passes for 524 yards and five touchdowns. Over 13 games last season, Cunningham and Anderson combined to catch 26 passes for 330 yards and four touchdowns.
Those numbers can only help quarterback Connor Shaw’s confidence in his tight ends.
“We’ve known what we can do all year, and we got a chance to go out there and perform on the field,” Anderson said.
Anderson has a particular knack for getting into the end zone, with eight of his 20 career catches going for touchdowns. This season, he caught two touchdown passes against East Carolina and one each against Missouri, Georgia and Tennessee. He got a charge out of Cunningham having a big day against the Volunteers, although his teammate couldn’t quite get into the end zone.
“You don’t see him go downfield too often, but when we stretch them out, we can both do that,” Anderson said.
Spurrier likes how Shaw is doing a better job of finding those big targets. Cunningham stands 6-foot-4, Anderson measures 6-5 and Adams is 6-6.
“They finally got some balls coming,” Spurrier said. “Connor finally took his steps and threw it. Hopefully, he’s learned to turn it loose when he’s got an opening to throw.”
Cunningham, who has caught 45 passes for 485 yards in his career, knows Shaw will find them if they’re open. But he also realizes their role in the offense may change from game-to-game depending on the opponent, which means there’s no guarantee the Gamecocks will attack Arkansas next week as they did Tennessee last week.
“That would be nice, but we try to game-plan according to what will help the team out that week. So if that’s what it takes that week, we’ll do it,” Cunningham said.