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Slim Saunders fits into his role

Weslye Saunders
Weslye Saunders

Weslye Saunders did not experience the dreaded “freshman 15.”

With an array of fast-food options dotting Columbia’s landscape, the South Carolina tight end put on the freshman 25.

But the sophomore from Durham, N.C., cut the super-sized meals from his diet, dropped 10 pounds from last year’s playing weight and is having as good a preseason camp as any of the Gamecocks’ receivers or tight ends.

Given Saunders’ athleticism and soft hands, there was never a concern he might eat his way into a spot at offensive tackle. But USC coaches thought he would be more effective with more time in the weight room and fewer trips to the drive-through lane.

“I came here and ballooned to like 290 last year, then got back down to 283,” said the 6-foot-5 Saunders, who was 265 as a high school senior. “As far as what they wanted me to do and playing the number of snaps they were talking about, I knew I needed to shed some pounds and get in better shape.”

Saunders, who now weighs 272 pounds, credits a healthier diet and his offseason work with USC strength coach Mark Smith for his improved physique.

“After leaving practice, instead of going to McDonald’s, I might go to the grocery store, buy some granola bars, eat a Nutri-Grain bar before I go to bed. Nothing too heavy,” Saunders said. “Wake up in the morning, eat a good breakfast. Nothing too ridiculous. No Taco Bell all the time.”

Saunders has noticed an improvement in his conditioning. He is able to keep his breathing under control and no longer needs a break after six or seven plays.

That has been particularly helpful since a toe injury to Jared Cook during the first practice has forced Saunders to handle the bulk of the snaps at tight end.

“With Jared being down, Weslye’s practicing about every play. He doesn’t get a lot of snaps off,” USC receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. said. “He’s a talented player.”

Saunders gets both his size and interest in journalism from his father, Barry, a columnist with The News & Observer in Raleigh who goes about 6-foot-3, 280 pounds, according to his son.

“My dad’s always thought if you can run and catch, you really don’t need to worry about your weight. But I think the coaches saw it a little differently,” said Saunders, who caught 12 passes for 151 yards as a freshman. “I could tell my conditioning wasn’t where it needed to be, so I took the initiative to lose some weight.”

Saunders had touchdown catches of 16 and 12 yards in Saturday’s scrimmage. The first came on a Tommy Beecher pass that was tipped by a defensive back; Beecher scrambled out of the pocket to find Saunders on the second score.

USC’s quarterbacks say they like throwing to Saunders because he is a big target who is elusive.

“He knows how to get open. For being as big as he is, he knows how to juke around and find a way to get open on a smaller guy,” Chris Smelley said.

“Every day we watch film, there’s usually a couple plays where you say, ‘Wow, a guy that big that’s able to run such good routes and get open versus man coverage.’ He’s a good athlete.”

Paired primarily against safeties and linebackers, Saunders is confident in his ability to create space between himself and the defender.

“I like to think any matchup thrown against me, I have something to counteract,” he said. “If a guy has speed, I’m usually bigger than him, or vice versa. If he’s a bigger guy, I’ll probably be able to ... beat him with my quickness.”

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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