Gamecocks could lose three defensive starters from junior class

South Carolina's Kelcy Quarles smiles as he sits on the field after defeating Missouri 27-24 in overtime of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

Near the end of his junior season, South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles has a decision to make.

It’s the same crossroads each player approaches when they’ve blossomed as a star before their eligibility expires. Quarles, who leads all SEC defensive tackles with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss, will have the chance to enter into the NFL draft after the season.

Despite reports that he’s already made up his mind, Quarles said Tuesday his future hasn’t been decided.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Quarles said when asked if he’ll leave school early for the NFL. “Right now, I’m just focused on, we’ve got a couple big games left.”

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is prepared to lose potentially three defensive starters from his junior class to the NFL draft. Beyond star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Spurrier said he’s spoken with Quarles and cornerback Victor Hampton about being recognized with the senior class next week before USC’s final home game.

Spurrier said the conversations have been brief.

“Really not in great detail,” he said. “Just, ‘If you guys want to come out before the game, the last game of the season when the seniors come out, that’d be fine. And if you decide to stay, then you can get introduced the next year also, the way Kenny Miles did.’”

Miles, a backup running back behind Marcus Lattimore, went through two senior day ceremonies. The first came as a junior, when he was considering turning pro early. Miles returned to school, and he got a chance to be honored with his senior class.

“We’ve had several players do that,” Spurrier said. “It’s up to them, if they feel like they’re ready to go, and so forth.”

When asked if he’ll go through senior day ceremonies before USC’s game against Clemson on Nov. 30, Quarles said he’s unsure. He said Spurrier and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward told him it’s his decision to make.

“They’re leaving it all up to me,” Quarles said. “So I might, I might not. I don’t know yet.”

Hampton also was noncommittal when the topic of his future was broached after Tuesday’s practice.

“I’m considering it, but right now I’m still focusing on Gamecock football,” said Hampton, who’s second on his team with two interceptions this fall. “Right now, I still have hopefully three to four games here, and I’m going to focus on every game here before I can worry about going to the next level.”

Not every underclassman is anxious to get to the next level. Junior guard A.J. Cann, the Gamecocks’ top offensive lineman, said Tuesday he’ll test the draft waters — just to see where his stock is as a prospect.

That doesn’t mean Cann is planning to turn pro.

“I’ve got another year of school left,” said Cann, whose 35 starts in the past three seasons lead all USC offensive linemen. “That’s another year to get better. So I’m going to stay in school.”

Spurrier understands how this part of college football works. Coaches sign prospects with three, four or five recruiting stars next to their name. The more stars, the better for the program — and the less likely that program will get four seasons of their service.

Spurrier doesn’t mind. The coach built a career out of restocking his roster when talent leaves for the NFL. He knows he can do so again. Spurrier said he’ll give his underclassmen time to consider all the options, no pressure to make a rushed decision.

“It doesn’t matter,” Spurrier said when asked what date he’d like to know whether an underclassman is entering the NFL Draft. “First game of the year, I guess I should say. Before spring practice.”

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