INDIANAPOLIS — Weslye Saunders said fear and a desire to protect himself and friends in North Carolina's football program prompted him to lie to the NCAA, a decision that cost the former South Carolina player the 2010 season and his status as one of the country's top tight end prospects.
Saunders will try to restore his name - and his high draft ranking - beginning at the NFL scouting combine.
Saunders last visited Indianapolis in October when he lobbied unsuccessfully for reinstatement by the NCAA, which suspended him for lying to investigators probing agent-related activity at UNC.
Saunders said he was looking out for himself and his friend Marvin Austin, the defensive tackle at the center of the UNC probe who was kicked off the Tar Heels' team. Saunders said he took trips last year with Austin to Atlanta and Washington, D.C., Austin's hometown.
Saunders said a friend paid for his trip to D.C. He later mentioned accepting impermissible benefits from a Columbia, S.C., friend whom the NCAA classified as a runner for an agent.
After he was twice dishonest with NCAA investigators, Saunders said he called back and told the truth.
"There's no excuse for lying," Saunders said Friday. "But being scared of the whole situation and knowing what happened to [former Oklahoma State receiver] Dez Bryant, how his whole season was taken away, I panicked."
Saunders said NCAA officials told him he likely would have been suspended for a game or two had he been honest in his first two meetings with investigators, which Saunders compared to a murder investigation.
During a four-hour session on a hot August day, Saunders said investigators "pretty much put two recorders in my face and started drilling me with questions."
Saunders, the son of News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders, nearly was forced to sit out a second season. The NFL originally ruled that Saunders needed to declare for the draft as an underclassman because he did not play as a senior, before reversing its decision.
The 6-foot-5, 270-pound Saunders, who caught 32 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns in 2009, hopes a good showing here and at the Gamecocks' pro day next month will put him back on the radar. He said he's heard from several teams, including the Carolina Panthers, who are looking for a pass-catching tight end.
"Coming into the 2010 season, [Notre Dame's Kyle] Rudolph and I were considered two of the top tight ends in the country," Saunders said. "I think it's my job during these interviews to let these coaches and teams know that I'm still the player that was considered one of the top tight ends."
email@example.com or 704-358-5123