Tyler is the team's best and most experienced back in pass protection, one of the reasons he won the starting job in fall camp last season.
Add in the graduation of gifted fullback Stanley Havili and uncertainty at both guard spots, it's no surprise that Kiffin has made blitz pickup and pass blocking a major point of emphasis for the four contenders – redshirt junior Curtis McNeal, sophomore Dillon Baxter, redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan and freshman Amir Carlisle – to replace Tyler in the season opener against Minnesota and potentially beyond.
McNeal has the lead right now, in part because he is the most adept in protection, Kiffin said Friday.
"I would say Curtis is a little ahead when you put everything together He is probably the most complete right now when you put in understanding all the protections," he said. For McNeal, it marks a remarkable turnaround capped by achieving the necessary grade in summer school in an elective guitar class to boost his grade point average to regain his eligibility.
McNeal, who readily admits he is at USC to play football, capped off his week by running down defensive tackle DaJohn Harris short of the goal line after intercepting a tipped Barkley pass, just one indication of his growth.
"Curtis has come further than anyone in our program from the day we got here," Kiffin said. There were a lot of questions if Curtis would ever make it in our program. He was really struggling with our program. To see his turnaround and where he has come, it's why we do it, to have special stories like that."
But Kiffin's earlier evaluation of the pass protection indicated how uncomfortable he is with the situation.
"That is a big concern for us because there is not very much experience back there. We'll do it more than normal because we have to get these guys, especially these young guys, ready to do that," Kiffin said.
Offensive coordinator and running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu says running backs must meet three criteria to play, protecting the quarterback second among them. The others are protecting the ball and playing with the necessary attitude to win in everything they do.
After six years as an NFL assistant, five with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Polamalu immediately changed how running backs handled pass protection upon returning to USC. Not surprisingly, the former USC fullback and linebacker favors a more aggressive approach, asking running backs to attack the defender by closing the distance to meet him head on instead of being stationary, resetting and hitting again.
"We call it a shock technique and they love it. They get a chance to just go," Polamalu said.
"We're a collision group. We are going to come and collision you. We're not going to hesitate, we're not going to come and let you run us over."
McNeal and Morgan didn't get to focus fully on the adjustment last year, spending time working with the scout team McNeal due to academics while Morgan continued to recover from a knee injury he suffered in high school.
"What has helped them is they have seen clips of (former UCLA and current Jaguars running back) Maurice Drew when I had him because Maurice's arms are so slow, so I changed his technique to what we are doing now," Polamalu said.
The challenge is more than just one of technique.
"They have to protect his (quarterback Matt Barkley's) blindside, know where the weakness of the protection is for you and the system. Know when to help on the defensive end and still get out on your route. Those are the things they are still learning," Polamalu said.
"They are getting there. They are seeing the whole field."
-There is no timetable for when redshirt freshman quarterback Jesse Scroggins will return after undergoing surgery on his throwing hand Thursday.
-Safety T.J. McDonald (shoulder) and wide receiver Robert Woods (ankle) each said they would be available for the second scrimmage Sunday afternoon in the Coliseum. Kiffin said linebacker Chris Galippo (shoulder) is showing progress, but unlikely to be available.
-Carlisle aggravated a quad injury and left practice early, while freshman wide receiver George Farmer hurt his back.
-Freshman quarterback Cody Kessler led two scoring drives in two-minute drills to end practice.