COLUMBIA — About 2½ years ago, South Carolina defensive line coach Brad Lawing called one of his underachieving players into his office. Lawing had marveled at the kid’s athleticism when USC recruited him out of Rockingham, N.C. But when Melvin Ingram got to college, he slacked in the classroom and on the practice field.

“You’ve got tons of ability, but you don’t practice hard,” Lawing recalled telling Ingram. “You seem very disinterested. You’re going back to Rockingham if this continues, because after college, that’s where you’re headed. You’re not going to earn a degree, because of the way you’re approaching school. As a football player, when you play your last college snap, that’s going to be it. It’s going to be a shame to waste all that ability you’ve got.”

Ingram listened and changed. He graduated in December and maximized his final two seasons as a USC defensive end, leading the Gamecocks with nine sacks as a junior and 10 as a senior. Lawing still remembers the day, at some point during the past two seasons, when Ingram looked at him and said, “You know, a man can make a lot of money playing this game, can’t he?”

Lawing chuckled at the memory, as Ingram is on the verge of becoming very rich. He is projected to get picked somewhere between No. 7 and No. 13 in the first round of tonight’s NFL draft, according to NFLDraftScout.com.

Nine USC players have been drafted in the first round. The Gamecocks had two first-round picks in the same year just once — 1981, when running back George Rogers went first and tight end Willie Scott went 14th. It should happen again tonight, as cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who turned pro a year early, is projected to get picked as high as seventh.

Gilmore and Ingram are two of the 26 players invited by the NFL to attend the draft in New York. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., the draft’s most prominent analyst, thinks Ingram will go seventh to Jacksonville and Gilmore will go 12th to Seattle, as his stock skyrocketed in recent weeks.

Out of high school, Gilmore was considered more of a can’t-miss recruit than Ingram, who played tailback and linebacker, but was projected by USC’s coaches to grow into a defensive end. Even as he did, he maintained his freakish athleticism. He is now 6-1 and 265 pounds, and he can still do a backflip, which his sister taught him years ago when she took gymnastics lessons.

Nobody figured 2½ years ago that Ingram would be a first-round pick, but he is relishing the opportunity now that he has it.

In the months leading up to the draft, he participated in a made-for-television skills competition, appeared on ESPN’s “Sports Science” segment and “tried my best to shake everybody’s hand” when he met NFL scouts, coaches and general managers. He even mentioned on his Twitter page that he might have T-shirts made with his nickname since high school on them: Super Melvin.

“I love it,” Ingram said. “It’s a great experience. God only lets you go through it once. Why not enjoy it?”

Depending on which team picks Ingram, he could wind up playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, which uses four linebackers and often requires larger ends. Some teams think Ingram could play middle linebacker, Kiper said.

“Bottom line is Ingram is going to be a heck of a player in this league,” Kiper said. “It’s just a question of what team is going to feel he’s the right fit for what they’re doing.”

As a kid, Ingram watched the draft on TV and stared at all the players walking across the stage in New York, wearing their fine suits. “I want to experience that one day,” he told himself. He knows he got to this point over the past couple of years by listening to Lawing.

“I became a student of the game, and I feel like once you become a student of the game, the game comes easier to you,” he said.

But he also thinks much of the desire to get here was always somewhere inside of him.

“I envisioned this when I was a kid,” he said. “When you’re playing football and you’re trying to do things like this, it doesn’t just happen when you come to college. I feel it’s born within you. You can’t work hard at having a dream of being a football player. It’s just got to be something that’s in you.”