INDIANAPOLIS -- Former South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders sounded appropriately contrite at the scouting combine -- which he only got to attend after the NFL relented two weeks ago and allowed him into the 2011 draft despite missing the deadline to petition for inclusion as an underclassman.
Saunders was suspended for the entire 2010 season after lying to the NCAA twice regarding details of trips he took to Atlanta and Washington, D.C., last summer with friend Marvin Austin, the former North Carolina Tar Heels defensive tackle who was the focal point of an investigation into alleged improper benefits received from agents. Saunders was eventually kicked out of the program by coach Steve Spurrier.
Saunders said he paid his own way, but lied to protect friends, fearing he would get them in trouble -- although he claimed not to know what for.
"I panicked," said Saunders. "There's no excuse for lying. I wasn't truthful and forthcoming. I did hold back on information in the first two interviews. The third time I laid everything out on the table.
"It felt like they were investigating a murder. It was in the middle of summer, they put me in a hot room in the Carolina Inn and stuck two tape recorders in front of me for four hours."
|Weslye Saunders has not played since the fall of 2009 after being suspended for all of last season. (Getty Images)|
"[South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman] said I was the reason the whole program was being investigated," said Saunders. "He wouldn't say I was the scapegoat, but I caused the hoopla, so they were less inclined to let me back on the team."
Instead, Saunders paid his own way to travel to see the Gamecocks play last season. The low point was sitting in the stands at home by himself during South Carolina's victory over then-No. 1 Alabama and getting taunted by fans.
Saunders signed with an agent and applied for the 2011 NFL Draft without realizing he technically was a junior. Not only did that cause confusion regarding his draft paperwork, but Saunders said he would have played another year of college football if he had known he had eligibility remaining.
Saunders hasn't played a football game in more than a year. During that time, he went from a top-rated tight end prospect to a late-round gamble. He's the No. 11-rated tight end in the 2011 draft class, according to ratings by NFLDraftScout.com, which projects Saunders as a sixth-round pick.
If Saunders can convince NFL teams that the NCAA investigation was the mistake of a panicked kid, Saunders could prove a low-risk/high-reward selection. He's a big prospect at 6-feet-5 and 272 pounds, but has surprising athleticism for his size and could be a good move-the-chains receiver who is difficult to bring down once he gets the ball in his hands.
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