USC: Darren Sproles

Might be McNeal's time

October, 17, 2011

It almost seems a little unfair.

Curtis McNeal, USC's Darren Sproles-sized redshirt junior running back, has done everything he possibly can over the last several months to try to convince Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin he can be the team's No. 1 option -- from reinventing himself as a person to reinventing himself as a leader to flat-out dominating his competitors in game situations.

Yet, in the week of what appears to be his best chance yet to play the role of No. 1 running back -- with starter Marc Tyler doubtful for Saturday's game against Notre Dame because of a dislocated shoulder -- McNeal still hasn't convinced Kiffin he's ready.

"Well, he's trying to," Kiffin said Sunday, after McNeal took almost all of the first-string reps in practice with Tyler on the sidelines wearing a sling. "He hasn't, because every time he's gotten banged up. Every time, whether it's been a scrimmage or something like that, something has come up.

"He's proved to me that he's trying, but his body hasn't allowed him to do it at full speed yet, so hopefully that'll come."

McNeal, who missed last season while academically ineligible, has heard that sort of veiled criticism before. It's normal when you're generously listed at 5 feet 7 and 180 pounds and not a true speedster. But as he runs between the tackles time and time again, his numbers are starting to speak for themselves. He has been USC's best running back this season, and it really hasn't even been close.

He averages seven yards per carry. Of the four primary backs, the next-best player in that category is Tyler, with an average of 4.4 yards. D.J. Morgan puts up 3.3 and Dillon Baxter 3.2, but neither is playing a major role at this point in the season. It has been a month since either player got more than three carries in a game.

Even so, running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu refuses to publicly rule them out as starting candidates if Tyler is indeed out.

"We'll see," Polamalu said Sunday. "Marc is still our starter until he's called out, and the other guys are always preparing to be the guy if he is out."

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