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Carolina Panthers

Saunders seeks NFL shot


With a victory over No. 1 Alabama and their first appearance in the SEC Championship, the South Carolina Gamecocks enjoyed a truly memorable 2010 season.

Tight end Weslye Saunders can only wish he had enjoyed it.

"The lowest point probably was when we beat Alabama. I was there, but I wasn't part of it," Saunders said. "To see how excited my teammates were, that just hurt.

"Also, when we beat Florida and realized we were going to the SEC Championship for the first time in school history, that hurt a lot."

Saunders watched his former teammates' triumph from the stands last season after the school dismissed him from the program. Saunders missed the first two games for an undisclosed violation of team rules; then, his unwillingness to cooperate with NCAA investigators prompted South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman to remove him from the team.

Now, with the NFL Draft fast approaching, Saunders is trying to restore his good name as well as his place among the elite tight ends in the class.

"I made a mistake and I suffered greatly for that mistake," Saunders said. "But I never was arrested. I never failed a drug test. I never was on academic probation.

"I think I'll get a chance to prove myself."

At the NFL Scouting Combine, Saunders admitted that he did "hold back some information" during two interviews with the NCAA about offseason trips involving several North Carolina players – friends of Saunders – and possible impermissible agent benefits.

During the interview process, the NCAA learned that several South Carolina football players – including Saunders – were living in a hotel at reduced rates.

"I don't want to say I was the scapegoat, but (Hyman said) it was me that caused all that hoopla, so they were less inclined to allow me back on the team," Saunders said. "It's not about fair, but I can understand where he is coming from. I think he did what he had to do for the betterment of the team and the athletic program."

Saunders, meanwhile, tried to do what was best for him, taking the unprecedented step of paying out of his own pocket for a trip to Indianapolis in October to set the record straight with NCAA officials.

"I told them everything they wanted to know just to see if there was anything I could do to get back on the field," Saunders said. "I met with the athletic director; I wrote letters; I tried to petition. I did anything I could to get back on the field some way, somehow."

Despite his best efforts, Saunders didn't return to the field until he went back to Indy in late February for the NFL Scouting Combine. That, too, was short-circuited when medical tests revealed a broken bone in his foot.

He finally got a chance to show scouts his capabilities at South Carolina's pro day a week ago.

"I do believe it has hurt my draft stock a little bit because I haven't played, and a lot of other guys have more film," Saunders said. "I want to prove to coaches that I'm still an athletic, 6-foot-5, 270-pound tight end that can make plays."

He also wants to prove that he's a more dependable person than his year-long suspension might suggest.

"Not playing this season has humbled me so much," Saunders said. "I don't think there is an arrogant bone in my body, except that when I'm on the field, and I know that there is pretty much no one out there who can stop me."


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