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Columbia, SC (Willie T. Smith III, Greenville Online)-Since stepping on campus, Kelcy Quarles has been an important part of the South Carolina defense.

During that time there have always been more high-profile athletes playing nearby. For at least one season each, Melvin Ingram, Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney have accompanied Quarles along the Gamecocks' defensive front line.

Ingram and Taylor are now in the NFL, and Clowney could be the No. 1 selection in the 2014 draft.

Overshadowed at South Carolina, Quarles unexpectedly stepped into the limelight this season.

"Kelcy is a beast," USC cornerback Victor Hampton said. "He uses his arms so well it makes him impossible to block. He has become a real leader, both on and off the field."

Quarles finished the season with team highs in tackles for loss (13.5) and sacks (9.5). That was enough to earn consensus first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection.

He also was a first-team Sporting News All-American, and he was selected to the second team by most other services.

Quarles managed that despite getting off to a slow start.

He missed the first half of the Gamecocks' opener against North Carolina for disciplinary reasons and played poorly the following week in the team's loss at Georgia.

Disappointed and disillusioned about his performance against the Bulldogs, Quarles sought answers to explain his sub-par outing.

He found first-year defensive line coach Deke Adams, who was blunt with the former Greenwood High School standout.

"I sat down with Coach Adams face-to-face," Quarles said after a recent practice as the Gamecocks (10-2) prepare to play No. 19 Wisconsin (9-3) in the Capital One Bowl. "I looked him straight into the eyes. He told me, 'You need to step it up.'

"He gave me a man-to-man talk. He told me, 'You need to step it up. You need to take control and be a leader.' "

Quarles took Adams' words to heart. He watched tape of his performances in those first two games.

"I watched myself and I knew I still had more I could give," he said.

Quarles set out to do just that. For the remainder of the season, he pushed himself. He consistently stayed after practice to work on his conditioning, strength and his agility. He supplemented his extra time on the field with additional film study.

The extra work and new-found intensity paid off. While the national media obsessed about Clowney's every move, Quarles became the most accomplished player along the defensive line.

"I just thought," Quarles said, " 'God gives you all of this ability. Why not go out there and use it?' Obviously I turned it around. I did well."

The highlight for Quarles came against rival Clemson. He was credited with 2½ sacks.

"He has become our anchor up front," Clowney said of Quarles. "He's not just sitting on the line of scrimmage waiting anymore. He's really pushing, getting off blocks and making plays."

Quarles missed by only one/half sack of tying for the most in Football Bowl Subdivision.

His performance appears to have cemented his early departure from USC to make himself available for the 2014 NFL draft, though he has declined to confirm that he will forgo his senior season.

"You get emotional sometimes," Quarles said. "You sit out here and think this could be the last game with this team, the last time practicing out here. But, when I think about it, it pushes me to work harder. It makes me want to win even more."

Quarles concedes that since the end of the regular season he has taken time to reflect on his career.

"When the All-SEC list came out," Quarles said, "when I made it, I said 'Wow.' All that hard work, staying down here in May and working, all that waking up early in the morning when you didn't want to get up, going out there and grinding when people told me I was crazy because I could have been home doing something else. I was out here working for the team.

"I feel like it all paid off."

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