COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Dismissed tight end Weslye Saunders was back on South Carolina's practice field working out for NFL scouts Wednesday -- and trying to repair a reputation damaged by lying to the NCAA.
Saunders admitted at the NFL combine last month he had lied to NCAA investigators over an inquiry into improper contact with agents. He was also among several Gamecocks who lived at a local hotel for discounted rates. Once a highly regarded prospect, the 6-foot-6, 273-pound senior was kicked off the team in September and did not play a game his senior year.
So it was a contrite and humbled Saunders who took to South Carolina's practice facility in front of football personnel from 28 of the NFL's 32 teams.
"I want to prove that I have good character, that I'm not a character," Saunders said.
Saunders was among several former Gamecocks auditioning for the NFL, none expected to crack the draft's first round. The crowd watching included Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz.
Other former South Carolina players who took part were safety Chris Culliver, defensive end Cliff Matthews and receiver Tori Gurley, a 23-year-old who left the program with two years of eligibility remaining.
Saunders, a large, rangy pass catcher known for running precise routes, was considered one of the country's premier tight ends after choosing to return for his senior year. But in the summer, Saunders met with the NCAA regarding trips he took and how they were paid for. That led to the governing body discovering football players living at the hotel for discounted rates, something South Carolina's compliance office signed off on.
Saunders acknowledged he dug himself an even deeper hole when he lied to the NCAA, a choice that cost him his senior year on the field. It also cost the Gamecocks an experienced tight end who might've been a difference maker in the 9-5 season.
"The biggest lesson is always be truthful in whatever you do and let the chips fall where they may," he said. "Fabricating a story or not even telling the whole truth is just the same as telling a lie."
Saunders did not work out at the NFL combine because of a broken bone in his left foot. He trained with the pain the past month to prepare for this session.
"Maybe I got a few brownie points for it," he said with a smile.
Saunders is scheduled for surgery Friday and expects to need four to six weeks to fully recover.
Saunders looked sharpest when catching passes. He ran his first 40-yard dash in day-glo green sneakers before changing into more comfortable shoes for his final run. "Good," a scout shouted as Saunders crossed the line.
Saunders caught 32 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns as a junior in 2009.
It was also a homecoming for Saunders, who had to watch from the outside as the Gamecocks won the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division crown and played in their first SEC championship game. He thanked athletic director Eric Hyman and coach Steve Spurrier for allowing him to take part.
Spurrier shook Saunders hand on the field. "He told me good luck," Saunders said. "Coach Spurrier, he's the guy who recruited me."
Saunders has not heard from the NCAA since last summer and feels his part of the investigation is over. South Carolina, which received a letter of inquiry from the NCAA last September, has not heard any more about the probe's findings or potential penalties. The Gamecocks served three years of NCAA probation for five major and five minor violations under former coach Lou Holtz.
Saunders thinks he's improved his draft prospects, both with his play and his talks with NFL personnel.
"At the end of the day, the scouts and the coaches knew I made a mistake, but I didn't commit any crimes or anything," he said. "I let them know that it would never happen again. They would never hear my name anywhere but in the end zone catching passes."