COLUMBIA - Kelcy Quarles was discouraged, and it was more than South Carolina's early-season loss at Georgia that had his head hung low.
The Gamecocks' junior defensive tackle had star potential. In Athens, his play didn't justify the hype. Quarles didn't have a sack, a tackle for loss or anything that could be recognized as a game-changing play in those 60 minutes between the hedges.
Afterward, he lingered in the visiting locker room at Sanford Stadium, dwelling on the missed opportunities until first-year defensive line coach Deke Adams pulled him aside.
The ensuing conversation was blunt and clear.
"I sat down with coach Adams face-to-face, I looked him straight in the eyes, and he told me, 'You need to step it up,'" Quarles said. "He gave me a man-to-man talk. He said, 'You need to step it up. You need to take control and be a leader.' I watched film, I watched myself, and . I knew I had some more I could give."
The next week, as South Carolina prepared for Vanderbilt, Quarles said he "channeled in." He stayed after practice, running extra agility drills shirtless in the late-summer heat. There were extra practice reps, more film study - a return to the work ethic that earned him a preseason All-SEC second-team spot.
"I just thought to myself, 'God gives you all of this ability. Why not go out here and use it?'" Quarles said. "Obviously, I turned it around. I did well."
Quarles had six sacks in the next six games following the conversation with his position coach. He hit a new gear, consistently playing at a level he never reached in his first two years, highlighted with his 21/2 sacks against Clemson.
Quarles was arguably the top SEC defensive tackle this season, with his 91/2 sacks and 131/2 tackles for loss leading the league at his position. Only one defensive tackle in the country had more sacks than Quarles. That was Pittsburgh senior and Bednarik Award winner Aaron Donald, who had 10.
Now, Quarles' preseason hype has turned into postseason hardware. He was named first team All-American by the Sporting News and second team All-American by a plethora of organizations, including The Associated Press.
"It means a lot," Quarles said. "It means that all my hard work paid off. It means that I've still got work to do. It means that I played my butt off, and I did what I was supposed to do, and I did everything I could for this university. I used my God-given ability to accomplish everything I wanted to accomplish.
"I got everything out of this school and more. I juiced it all out, and I think I got everything out of this school I ever wanted."
Quarles has submitted his papers to the NFL draft advisory board. While he has yet to receive an evaluation, there is no suspense with what direction Quarles' path will go after the season.
The junior will leave school early to enter the NFL. It will be a busy offseason, the process of becoming a professional athlete. Before it begins, Quarles said there's one more thing he'd like to accomplish at South Carolina.
He wants to beat Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day.
"If they aren't focused, I'll make sure they're focused," Quarles said of his teammates. "I understand it's a bowl game, you go down there and have fun, but at the end of the day, we've got to win the trophy and bring it back to Columbia."