Practice Report: McNeal excited to be back

After exiting scrimmages because of injury, diminutive running back Curtis McNeal is confident he can make it through entire season healthy.

LOS ANGELES – Curtis McNeal doesn't know if he will start at running back Saturday against Minnesota. He is just happy to play for the Trojans again.

The redshirt junior missed last season because of academics. USC head coach Lane Kiffin said McNeal was "as bad as we've ever had" in terms of attitude and was ready to give up on the former Los Angeles (Calif.) Venice standout.

Now, McNeal is competing with sophomore Dillon Baxter and redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan for carries in front of a national television audience.

"My whole family is coming to the game. They are so excited. I'm just like amazed because I'm really playing football this year," McNeal said.

"Four days away, I'm just great to go."

McNeal regained his eligibility over the summer, needing a grade in an introductory guitar class to boost his GPA.

Associate head coach and special teams coordinator John Baxter, who oversees the academic progress of every player, said he cited McNeal as an example Monday in a team meeting.

"Whose syllabus do we put on the overhead to use as an example but Curtis McNeal's? Already highlighted and underlined, broken down the right way," Baxter said.

While he still identifies himself as a football player first, his turnaround in the classroom is giving him more confidence on the field. The adversity has also driven McNeal to make the most of every opportunity he gets from now on.

"It has made me more hungry. I only got two more years to play, so I'm going to take advantage of every snap that I get," he said.

The only issue keeping McNeal from grabbing hold of the spot is concerns about his durability. The diminutive tailback, listed at 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds, started the Trojans' last two scrimmages only to exit both early with injuries.

Smaller backs have excelled across the Pac-12, most recently in LaMichael James at Oregon and Jacquizz Rodgers at Oregon State. Their success resonates with McNeal.

"Jacquizz got drafted, so that's a big up right there. The NFL is looking for small guys also, so like I said I'm going to take advantage of every snap that I get and play hard 100 percent," he said.

McNeal is confident he can get through all 12 games without getting hurt.

"I know I can get though a whole game and play through a season. I did it before and it's not going to change now," he said.

While Kiffin is okay with using a committee, he would prefer to have two backs assert themselves and divide carries between them.

"It can be done," he said. "It's just not ideal because it affects your rhythm a little bit as a playcaller and as your offensive line, to have guys hit the holes a bit different so hopefully it won't be that way in the end."

The fourth running back in contention, freshman Amir Carlisle, hurt his right ankle and left practice. Kiffin did not believe the injury was serious.

Regardless of how touches are spread, McNeal also intends to contribute on special teams. He has been on several core groups this fall, including kick and punt returns, and has shown a knack for blocking kicks in the past.

"I volunteered to play any position on special teams," McNeal said. "I told Coach Baxter to throw me in the game. I'm going to play wherever he throws me at."

Quick Hits
-Sophomore tight end Christian Thomas (hip) continues to increase his workload, participating in 7-on-7 on Tuesday.

-Redshirt senior linebacker Chris Galippo (shoulder) showed no lingering effects after practicing Sunday and continues to be on track to play against Minnesota.

Galippo again saw action in both the service and team periods, but Kiffin remains nervous with his projected starting middle linebacker.

"This is a lot different than a real game, all the hitting. So we'll throw him out there and hopefully he'll do well," Kiffin said.


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