When Kelcy Quarles hobbled off the field in the fourth quarter of a 23-21 loss to Tennessee on Oct. 19, he thought his college football career was finished.
Quarles has limped to the sideline before. In fact, no one on South Carolina’s football team has more experience hopping painfully off the field one play and dragging himself back out there again later than Quarles, the Gamecocks’ 6-foot-4, 298-pound defensive tackle. This one felt different, though, and it looked different when Quarles left Neyland Stadium on crutches with a large brace covering most of his right leg.
“I thought it was all over,” he said.
Instead, he was diagnosed with a knee sprain and made it back to the field one week later in time to have six tackles, including three for a loss, in a 27-24 double-overtime win against Missouri.
“Kelcy is a freak,” freshman linebacker T.J. Holloman said. “I was in rehab with him last week and noticing how painful it was (for him) to get back. For him to go out there and have that type of game shows how much he really loves his team. I really respect Kelcy for what he did.”
Quarles, a junior, has 25 tackles this season and leads the Gamecocks with seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss. After a slow start in which he averaged 2.25 tackles in the first four games of the year, he has averaged 5.3 tackles in three of his past four games.
“I felt like I had to do that,” Quarles said. “Why waste God-given ability and not go out there and give it your all? A lot of people wish they were in our shoes, going to school for free and playing football for a great university, so why not play hard.”
Quarles is the reigning SEC defensive player of the week, and he is second in the SEC in sacks.
“He has put himself in position to make plays,” defensive line coach Deke Adams said. “He is understanding what I am trying to get out of him. Everybody is doing so much to Jadeveon (Clowney) right now that (Quarles) is producing when he gets the opportunity.”
Quarles has paid a price for his performance. Along with the knee sprain against Tennessee, he’s had at least a half-dozen more bumps and bruises that have required attention on the sideline before he could return to the field to bump and bruise those same places all over again.
“It’s hard because you are going against people bigger than you, sometimes quicker than you, sometimes stronger than you. You take a beating every play,” Quarles said. “We are going against grown men, basically.”
As a middle linebacker, Holloman has a front row seat for the punishment Quarles takes every play.
“The offensive linemen we face are really, really big guys and really, really physical,” Holloman said. “That task of hitting them every single play I can only imagine.”
Every Sunday morning of the football season is a reminder for Quarles of how brutal his Saturdays are.
“You wake up and give that kind of old man groan and try to stretch and everything,” he said. “You walk around and want to just sit back down and sit there for a little while and get your mind together and then you can finally get up and move.”
Quarles’ production this season has raised the question of where he’ll play next season, with the Gamecocks or in the NFL. He is not answering that question for now.
“I am not worried about that at all,” he said. “I am worried about playing with my team, enjoying my teammates, enjoying the time that we have together and just getting better every day.”
There is little use worrying about the future given the toll the game takes every day, he said.
“Like I said, the Tennessee game was a real eye-opener for me because you never know when football is going to be over with,” he said. “You have to play hard and not worry about the next day.”