Tight ends Jared Cook and Weslye Saunders proved this spring they're very reliable - and quite talented - when it comes to catching the football. Both should be weapons in USC's passing offense this fall.
Their run blocking, though, must still improve for either one to fully realize his potential.
The main mission of new tight ends coach Ray Rychleski this spring was to move both Cook and Saunders closer to becoming complete football players. He feels he achieved his objective.
"Obviously, they love catching passes," Rychleski said about Cook and Saunders. "They think every pass should be thrown to them. That's not all bad. They worked very hard this spring not to miss a practice, which is very important.
"They're looking forward to the summer and the commitment it takes. From a blocking standpoint, I think they started out very slow, but as the spring went on and we did more one-on-one work with the defensive ends, they improved."
While showing progress, Cook and Saunders are still a long ways from demonstrating solid blocking skills, Rychleski said.
"They have a lot further to go," he said. "This is really the first spring they've done a lot of blocking. In the past, Andy Boyd did all (the blocking) and they didn't do as much as I would have liked. They did other things. But their eyes are on the target and they understand what the problem is. They understand that's their weakness, along with missed assignments. If they can get those two things down, they'll be very good tight ends in the SEC."
Under NCAA rules, Rychleski won't be able to work individually with Cook and Saunders until the beginning of fall camp in early August.
"I'm confident they'll have a real good summer conditioning program and come back in great shape," Rychleski said. "I'm looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish in the fall."
Cook, listed at 6-foot-5 and 242 pounds on USC's spring roster, emerged from the spring as the No. 1 tight end with Saunders a "very close second," Rychleski said. Cook had one reception for 15 yards in the Garnet and Black game and did what he was supposed to do on each of the 33 plays he was on the field.
"I'm encouraged Jared had no missed assignments in the spring game," Rychleski said. "That was very encouraging. Jared has been a wide receiver his whole life. He never played tight end until last season. For him, it's just learning the position and learning to be in the trenches where your body gets hit all the time. A wide receiver doesn't get hit day after day after day. But a tight end does."
Cook finished third on the team in receptions last season with 30 for 421 yards and three touchdowns. Overall, he has 36 career receptions in his first two seasons, averaging 14.8 yards per completion.
The redshirt junior from Suwanee, Ga. is big (6-foot-5), fast (he's run the 40 in under 4.4 seconds) and athletic (40-inch vertical leap), making him difficult for opposing linebackers to cover in space.
"Our offense is suited for a lot of people to make plays," Rychleski said. "It's like anything else. You take what's there. If the read tells you to throw it to the tight end, then you should throw it to the tight end. We spread it around. Quite obviously, when a guy makes a lot of plays, the quarterbacks have a tendency to look for him. But they have to be careful."
Saunders, a physically imposing 275-pound sophomore, had 12 catches as a 18-year old true freshman in 2007.
"Weslye has kind of seen the light a little bit and wants to be good," said Rychleski, who asserted early in spring practice that Saunders had a basketball mentality. "He understands that hard work is how you get there. From that standpoint, I'm pleased with his progress."
Since he's so young, Saunders is still developing physically and growing into his body, Rychleski said.
"Weslye has to get stronger," Rychleski said. "Sometimes, people see a big person and they think they're mature and it's just the opposite. Weslye has to mature (physically). He has to definitely get stronger in the bench press. His bench press is not very good right now. Conversely, Jared has the strength. For him, it's just playing (the tight position) more."
Head coach Steve Spurrier described Cook and Saunders as two of USC's top three pass catchers this spring. The pair combined for 42 receptions in 2007.
"They definitely have to be counted on as playmakers for us," Rychleski said. "Otherwise, we're just going to be an average team. They know that. But they also have to be complete tight end. They have to be able to block. We have to have a running game to go with our passing game."
In order to bolster the blocking from the tight end position, Spurrier intends to move Patrick DiMarco from fullback, where he caught four passes for 32 yards and one touchdown.
DiMarco, used primarily on special teams last season, is regarded as one of the physically toughest players on the Gamecocks.
"It's in the talking stages right now," Rychleski said. "With Patrick, we have a very good football player but he only plays on certain formations for us. We're trying to get him more involved. You always want to get your best players on the field. However we get him on the field, we want to get him on the field more. We're trying to find ways to keep him on the field when we go to our one-back sets.
"Over the summer, we're going to investigate it very closely and it's definitely a possibility for the fall. He's obviously been receptive because he wants to get on the field more. Any time you increase repetitions for a football player, he's all for it. Right now, there's a need for Patrick on the field."
Redshirt freshman Clark Gaston shifted over to tight end from fullback prior to the start of spring practice. The Cleveland, Tenn. native has the same problem as walkons Foxy Foxworth and fifth-year senior Alex McGrath.
All three will find playing time difficult to come by with Cook, Saunders and possibly DiMarco ahead of them on the depth chart.
"I would group those three guys together," Rychleski said. "They add depth to the tight end position. We're not going to put limits on anyone. We'll see what happens. We'll see how they progress. The jury is still out on those guys."
Foxworth, a former Shrine Bowl player from Wando High School in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., hopes to make an impact this season as a redshirt sophomore after watching from the sidelines his first two years with the program.
McGrath graduated from Riverside High School in Greer and joined the USC program in the fall of 2006 after transferring from the College of Charleston the previous year. He appeared in 12 games in 2006 as a special teams contributor.
Nick Prochak, who opened some eyes in spring practice last season after moving from defensive back to tight end, spent the spring on the sidelines while recovering from serious leg and lower body injuries sustained in a motor scooter accident.
The depth at tight end could be bolstered in the fall by the addition of Mike Triglia of Jacksonville, Fla. Triglia brings good size (6-foot-4, 234 pounds) to the position.
Triglia caught five touchdowns passes as a senior at The Bolles School and was ranked the No. 2 tight end in the Sunshine State.
2008 FALL TIGHT END ROSTER:
** Expected To Move to Tight End
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