After concluding our series on the top 10 moments of the 2011 USC football season, we start a new series on the Trojans' top 10 performers this year. With one player per day Monday-Friday, the list will last until Friday, Dec. 23.
Coming in at No. 10 Monday was safety T.J. McDonald and No. 9 on Tuesday was defensive tackle Christian Tupou. Here's No. 8: running back Curtis McNeal.
McNeal was, without a doubt, the biggest pleasant surprise of all of USC's returners this season and second overall after freshman receiver Marqise Lee.
Heck, he didn't even play last year, out the entire season while academically ineligible. And in his two previous seasons, he'd managed to get the ball just six total times. It was very, very unexpected that he'd be the Trojans' leading rusher this season -- let alone their second 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush.
How'd he do it?
McNeal always had the ability. That much was clear from watching him in practice and simply counting how long it took and how hard it was to get him to the ground. He's 5-feet-7, but he uses it to his advantage and provides few ways for defenders to bring him down.
Lane Kiffin didn't him the reins to the running game right away. McNeal got 17 total carries in USC's first four games, even with Marc Tyler suspended for the first, D.J. Morgan experiencing fumbling issues and Dillon Baxter in the coach's doghouse.
It was against Arizona, in the fifth game of the year, where McNeal finally started to get a chance. He broke a 44-yard run and sealed the game with a nine-yard touchdown run in the fourth. He followed that up with a workmanlike game at Cal and then broke off two straight big games against Notre Dame and Stanford.
Of course, he also fumbled on the last possession of the Stanford game and gave the Cardinal the win. But Kiffin stuck with him, and McNeal didn't have a single bad performance in any of the year's remaining games. He averaged at least 4.7 yards per carry in every single game -- 10 of them -- in which he was given at least five carries. He finished 15th in the country in yards per carry.
Where did his performance fit in with the rest of the squad? Tyler was able to return from suspension and fight through injuries to be a productive player, but he didn't come close to matching his 2010 performance. Baxter left the team and Morgan was a non-factor. Freshmen Amir Carlisle and George Farmer only affected a couple games each.
McNeal was, as the season went on, an ultra-steady presence in the USC backfield, and it seems likely he'll fulfill that same role to a greater extent next season as a senior.
Check back Thursday for performer No. 7, a defensive player.