COLUMBIA — College football teams practice for hours upon hours during the spring, and then again in August, to prepare for the season. Yet all that time cannot replicate the physical and mental intensity of games. It cannot reveal the kinks a team must work out. Only games can.

Saturday night, South Carolina plays its third game of the season, at home against Alabama-Birmingham. By the time it is over, the Gamecocks’ coaches hope to have a better sense of their team’s identity as it prepares for the regular season’s final nine games.

After the UAB game, the Gamecocks enter the meat of their Southeastern Conference schedule, starting Sept. 22 at home against Missouri. The season’s first three games — which, for major conference teams, usually include just one challenging opponent — have long been the time when players and coaches determine what works and what doesn’t. And USC this year is no different.

For players like defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, the adjustments have been physical. As a true freshman last season, he started just the final six games. Offseason weightlifting helped prepare him for the season, he said, but now that it has arrived, his body must get used to taking the beating he will endure as a full-time starter.

In Saturday’s win over East Carolina, that meant playing through the pain of a bruised knee that he said feels better now. Quarles believes he is a more intense player than he was last year, because he wants to set an example for the younger defensive tackles. Maintaining his intensity, even while he aches, will be an important task for him this season.

“I feel like my mind (during the ECU game) was kind of focused on that injury and I didn’t want to hurt it too bad,” he said. “Getting to the quarterback is about want-to.”

He and his teammates have done it well so far. USC has six sacks and five quarterback hurries, including a sack by Quarles.

As Quarles braces for the taxing physical task of starting in the middle of the line, his inexperienced teammates in the secondary, where USC has just one returning starter, are acclimating themselves to the mental speed their positions demand.

In a scrimmage, it is difficult to simulate “the speed of the calls” that safeties must make to align the defense in the span of a few seconds, said free safety D.J. Swearinger. They must get the alignment signal from the sideline and communicate it to their teammates while watching the offensive formation to determine what play the opponent might run.

Because it is an inexact science that practices can’t really mimic, Swearinger knows that film study of early games is particularly valuable for improving.

“The first two games, you get to see yourself on tape,” he said. “You just get to see the little things that you need to work on.”

Most of the wrinkle-ironing during the season’s early weeks happens between games, when even the coaches can see areas where they can improve.

The East Carolina game did just that for South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. He said one of his offensive linemen accurately, and literally, interpreted a pass protection that called for him to turn left, even though there was no defender to his left, but rather, one directly in front of him. Spurrier said the lesson therein was “don’t assume” a player will adjust without being told beforehand.

“He turns left and lets the guy run right by him,” Spurrier said. “It wasn’t his fault. We called turn left (protection). Even though there was nobody to the left, he blocked to the left area. ‘You said turn left, coach.’ We hadn’t gone over it well. So that’s bad coaching on our part. Stuff happens. You just keep going over and over and hopefully teach the guys how to play the game.”

Shell demoted

For the first two games, redshirt freshman Brandon Shell (Goose Creek High) was listed as the starting left tackle, though he started only the opener at Vanderbilt before coming off the bench and playing right tackle last week against East Carolina.

This week, Shell is listed as the backup right tackle behind Cody Gibson. Mike Matulis is the No. 1 left tackle. He replaced Shell at Vanderbilt and started at left tackle against East Carolina.