By now, anyone who even remotely follows the South Carolina football program knows about the continuing - and quite often maddening - saga that is the career of tight end Weslye Saunders. A highly touted talent from the Raleigh-Durham area, Saunders came to Columbia to make headlines on the field, get an education and prepare himself for an opportunity in the National Football League.
Saunders has made headlines, but most of them are due to incidents away from the field; trips to exotic locales that may have been paid for by an agent that led to the NCAA investigating Saunders, living arrangements at a Columbia hotel that also raised NCAA eyebrows and now, lying to his coaching staff about why he was late for a scrimmage (although it's officially being described as the stock "violation of team rules," the reason will likely hack you off).
I understand as well as anyone that just making headlines doesn't in any way mean that someone is guilty of all the incidents that are talked about in the subsequent articles, but after a while, those headlines become a distraction that permeates the entire program. Perception becomes reality. Daily questions asked of coaches and players. Daily conversation on talk shows. Daily discussion on the web. It gets old and causes everyone involved to be more tense. When one guy is the source of the distraction it's even worse.
With Weslye Saunders, the line has finally been crossed. It is, in my opinion, time for him to go. Now.
I can hear tens of thousands of Gamecock fans screaming "Whoa, Philips, back up a bit." They know as I do that Saunders IS a bona fide NFL prospect. He has size, speed, hands, smarts and he plays in the SEC. Those things make NFL scouts drool and help teams win games. If only that were enough in life.
Sadly, during most of his time in Columbia, Weslye Saunders has put his focus too squarely on one thing above all others: Weslye Saunders. I've spoken to a number of people in and around the program about this and the consensus on Saunders is that he's a great talent and makes sure everyone around him knows it. From all I've gathered he truly feels that his team and his university need him far more than he needs them. That's not true, and it's not good.
At the beginning of training camp in August, head coach Steve Spurrier seemed genuinely enthused about Saunders' prospects for his senior year. He was in the best shape of his career Spurrier told us, slimmed down and bulked up at the same time. Even back in the spring Saunders himself said on his Twitter account that 2010 was going to be a big season and that people would be very happy with the results. It's now a week from kickoff and we're not even sure Saunders will be eligible to step on the field. Anybody that's a Gamecock fan happy about that?
Of the four tight ends on the Carolina squad there is no doubt that Saunders is the best. Not all that long ago in Columbia talent would trump attitude simply because the football team didn't have enough good players on it. Based on Spurrier's attitude this offseason that's no longer the case. Carolina may not be Florida, Alabama or LSU, but the days of good starters and little else are gone. Quality depth abounds at many positions, and while tight end may not be as deep as say, the receiving corps, it's deep enough that losing the top guy and replacing him with players who have better character, effort and attitude will be an addition by subtraction.
I'd love to see the Gamecocks finally get to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game. I've often said that feat alone is the next true step for the program to take to prove it can play in this league. That said, I'm tired of seeing players come through the program that use it for their own needs, play hard when they feel like it and move on with a wake of apathy trailing behind them.
Weslye Saunders is the latest to fit that description. His most recent transgression only reinforces that. Regardless of his ability or potential impact on the field, it's time for Steve Spurrier to send a message: we don't want those guys anymore. Pull that bandage off now. It won't hurt very long, and Carolina Football will be better off in the end.