COLUMBIA -- After the season's second game, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney didn't feel like one of college football's best true freshmen, or like the nation's top-ranked recruit, though he was both. He just felt exhausted. He already endured August's grueling practices, and still had 10 regular season games remaining. It all seemed so daunting.
"I was like, 'I never had to go through all this work and practice. It's like a job, 24/7,' " he said. "After probably like the second game, I thought, 'Man, I'm tired of football.' "
His position coach, Brad Lawing, and senior defensive end Melvin Ingram both talked to him. Lawing assured him, "All my guys hit the wall."
Ingram echoed that thought and advised Clowney, "You've got to keep pushing. When you feel like you can't go no more, you've got to push harder."
While Clowney got through the freshman wall, Ingram experienced one of the best seasons ever for a USC player, in his first year as a starter,
which concludes Jan. 2 in the Capital One Bowl against Nebraska.
Ingram and Clowney ranked first and second on the team in sacks (8 1/2 and 6) and tackles for loss (13 1/2 and 10). Clowney's five forced fumbles ranked sixth nationally. For those feats, Ingram became USC's third ever consensus All-American -- an honor he said elicited "overwhelming emotions" -- and Clowney was named the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year by the league's coaches.
Their success shouldn't surprise anybody. Though Ingram started just once last season, his nine sacks led the team and ranked third in the SEC. Lawing had no concerns about Ingram as a pass rusher, but he needed to see Ingram improve at stopping the run.
"He got better in the run game, just understanding where his eyes need to be," Lawing said. "If your eyes are in the wrong place, your body's going to be in the wrong place. He got better with his eye discipline, and so as that got better, he got better in the run game."
Said Ingram: "Football is like 90 percent mental. So once you break it down in the mental aspect and be disciplined, it's easier."
Ingram came to USC as a linebacker and played in all 12 games there in 2007. A broken foot sidelined him for all of 2008. In the third-to-last game of 2009, he moved to defensive end because of injuries and started for the first time against Florida. He felt comfortable at end before this season and dismissed the notion that Clowney's arrival motivated him.
"I wouldn't say he pushed me," Ingram said. "I self-motivate myself. No other person is going to motivate me. It's just me waking up every day, being blessed to wake up and play football when there's crippled people and retarded people in the world. It's just a blessing to me, to motivate me. I was going to motivate myself no matter who was coming in and who I had to mentor."
Not that the two players have a contentious relationship. Lawing said Ingram was "a great mentor" for Clowney, whom Ingram called "one of the rare breeds," because of his of size (6-6, 254 pounds) and athleticism. As Ingram encouraged Clowney, he told him, "You keep working, the sky's the limit for you."
Ingram said his most significant improvement, after getting past his early weariness, involved using his hands more to his advantage while blitzing.
"It's not the best, but I think I got better using my hands than I was," he said.
Clowney still remembers how Ingram and other teammates told him back during his September lull, "If you get through, it's going to come out good for you in the end." And it has, though there may be greater things to come.
"He's a tremendous athlete, and so nothing should surprise me, even though he's a freshman," Lawing said. "His best days are still ahead of him. He's got a tremendous amount of improvement that he needs to make. He played a lot, probably, off athletic ability as a freshman. Now, it needs to be about fundamentals and real sound play."
Defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles limped off the practice field Sunday, but he just has a sprained knee and is expected to be OK for the bowl game, according to USC.