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April 29, 2013
Spring rewind: Defensive tackles
Kelcy Quarles watched as two former teammates at Greenwood High School were drafted by the Houston Texans this past weekend - former South Carolina free safety D.J. Swearinger (second round) and LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery (third round).
Entering his junior season, the quotable Quarles is the face of the defensive tackle spot for USC, and a surefire NFL Draft pick as well whenever he decides to take the plunge into pro football.
After two solid seasons, Quarles is on the verge of breaking through and becoming an All-SEC caliber performer after collecting 38 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in 2012.
Certainly, Quarles showed in spring practice that he is zealous about making the long leap to stardom.
"Kelcy had a great spring," USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward told Gamecock Central recently. "Kelcy practiced as hard as I've ever seen him practice. Every single practice that he was out there, he gave maximum effort. That's the way he has to play the games."
Quarles has started 17 games in his first two years, including all 11 this past season (he missed the Florida and Tennessee games with an injury) and collected 66 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries.
However, Ward emphasized Quarles has a ways to go before living up to his hype coming out of high school in 2010 when he was ranked by Rivals.com as the ninth-best defensive tackle in the country and the fourth best in the Southeast.
"If he wants to be what he was supposed to be coming out of high school, this is the year he has to prove it," Ward said. "If he practices in fall camp the way he did in the spring, I fully expect Kelcy to dominate guys inside."
Ward maintains Quarles' production - and his effort level - has steadily increased as he has become more comfortable with USC's scheme and how things are done at the elite Division I level.
"The more you feel comfortable with the system and you know what to do, your mind doesn't slow you down," Ward said. "As a young player, it's tough to come into college and learn all the little details about technique and fundamentals that the position coach tries to teach you."
J.T. Surratt and Gerald Dixon Jr. waged a spring practice-long battle for the right to start at defensive tackle alongside Quarles. Little was resolved, though, over the course of the 15 practices, so the fight will extend into preseason camp.
"It's close to a dead heat going into fall camp," Ward said. "Beginning spring practice, J.T. had the lead on Junior (Dixon), but Junior has closed the gap. Right now, you have to flip a coin to see who will start the game.
"We'll see how the battle unfolds in fall camp. Competition is a good thing. When you have good players and you create competition, it definitely makes you better as a team."
Four years ago, Surratt was a lightly-recruited prospect out of Parkland High School in Winston-Salem, N.C., but he has patiently and progressively developed into a solid defensive tackle capable of holding his own against SEC interior offensive linemen.
"When he's focused, he's a good football player," Ward said of Surratt. "But when he's not, he's not a very good football player. So, it just comes back to him being focused and wanting to get it done. Coach (Brad) Lawing did a great job with him during the (three) years he had him and Coach (Deke) Adams will try to top it off. We just have to find a way to make sure we motivate him and he wants to come to practice ready to work every day."
Dixon Jr. gained valuable experience last season as a redshirt freshman with nine tackles in 12 games. He started the two games against Florida and Tennessee in place of the injured Quarles.
"Kelcy is probably quicker, but Junior moves pretty well for a big guy," Ward said. "He has the ability to rush the passer, but also the size and strength to be a run stopper. He still has a lot of room to grow as a football player, but he plays with great effort and with a good motor. If he keeps that up, he'll continue to get better."
Like Quarles, Phillip Dukes was also a highly regarded defensive tackle in high school by Rivals.com (No. 9 nationally), but has seen little playing time in his first two years in the program. He redshirted in 2011 and had three tackles in five games a season ago.
Dukes displayed in the spring that he is ready to elevate into the defensive tackle rotation.
"He has some ground to make up, but Phillip had a good spring," Ward said. "Phillip showed he has worked on his body to where he has more speed and quickness now. That's what we need in this system because we move so far. We definitely can't count Phillip Dukes out. If he continues to grow in the summer like he did in the spring, he'll be right in the mix to contend for playing time."
Deon Green has been limited by a major knee injury in his first two years and has yet to see action. He is able to play both defensive tackle and defensive end, but his confidence in the injured knee is still lacking, Ward said.
In terms of national ranking, four-star newcomer Kelsey Griffin (No. 7 defensive tackle by Rivals.com) is more highly regarded than Quarles or Dukes coming out of high school. How dominant was Griffin at Mill Creek High School in Buford, Ga.? He recorded an amazing 108 tackles and 10 sacks during his senior season.
In all likelihood, Griffin will redshirt in 2012, but an exemplary performance in preseason camp or unforeseen injuries could change the equation.
2013 FALL DEFENSIVE TACKLE ROSTER:
Gerald Dixon Jr. (RSo.)
Phillip Dukes (RSo.)
Deon Green (RSo.)*
Kelsey Griffin (Fr.)
Kelcy Quarles (RJr.)
J.T. Surratt (RJr.)
* Could also play defensive end
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