While struggling to find a role on offense, McNeal allowed some off the field distractions get the best of him, and he was ruled academically ineligible as a sophomore in 2010.
By the time Lane Kiffin and the new staff took over, McNeal had become so discouraged by his lack of playing time and other issues that he nearly walked away from the game - literally.
"Curtis was almost out of here. He was close to walking off the field one day, which would have been his last chance, and he didn't do it," Lane Kiffin said. He's come a long ways.
So what brought about the change?
As running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu explains, it was a matter of getting McNeal focused on his future, and building a strong relationship based on trust.
"It took a lot of individual, closed-door meetings," Polamalu said. "I just basically told him that I loved him and I am not going to allow anything in his life to effect this. You got to stay focused and you are not going to quit."
Polamula admitted that it wasn't an easy transition early on, with some heated exchanges ensuing, but a bond was formed between the player and coach during those difficult times.
"Food on the ground arguments, but no physical, it's just emotional," Polamalu said. "And in the long run I had to earn that trust and he knows that I have his back."
McNeal's progress was on display for the entire nation last season, when he rushed for a team-high 1,005 yards and took over the starting job late in the season.
"That's what coaching is all about and there is no better high," Polamalu said. "There is no drug or alcohol out there better than watching a young person mature and gain confidence."
After a handful of hard knocks, McNeal enters his senior season firmly atop the depth chart, and with the trust of his teammates and coaches.
- Injury Update: George Farmer, Buck Allen, Xavier Grimble and Khaled Holmes were all held out of practice because of injuries. Freshman tight end Junior Pomee missed practice because of a family issue and tight end Randall Telfer left practice early because of a hamstring problem. Linebackers Marquis Simmons (shoulder) and Dion Bailey (hamstring) were both limited.
Lane Kiffin said he has noticed an unusually large number of hamstring injuries so far during spring practice but didn't know the cause of the issue.
"I don't know what to attribute that to except for just not much depth at the skill spots where it's happening," Kiffin said. "They're taking a lot of reps. That's the only thing I can guess."
- Even though it has only been two practices, Tre Madden has looked very natural running the ball. He ran tough inside today, with a pair of nice runs during 11-on-11 drills, and maybe the most pleasant surprise has been his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
"Really good forward lean when he runs, really good feet," Kiffin said. "Obviously got a long ways to go but an exciting prospect to have there, giving us some size that we really want to have. So hopefully he can do it."
- It was a good day for USC's veteran safeties with T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling both coming up with interceptions. Starling intercepted a pass near the line of scrimmage during 11-on-11 drills and returned it for a touchdown, and McDonald intercepted a Matt Barkley pass on the first play of 7-on-7.
"I thought T.J. McDonald had a really good practice – really showed up after a good first week," Kiffin said. "I think he's having a great second week."
Barkley responded by hitting Marqise Lee for a score on the very next play.
- Defensive tackle George Uko has been one of the most impressive players this spring and drew major praise from Lane Kiffin on Thursday.
"He had a dominant practice off the film Tuesday. He's doing a great job. He's a perfect 3-technique," Kiffin said. "He's powerful, he's quick, he's explosive, he can run long, he can play the run, he can rush the passer. The sky's the limit for him."
- After two years of not having many, if any, recruits at practice the far sideline at Howard Jones Field has been filled with prospects this week. On Thursday, several players from Long Beach Poly and Capistrano Valley were in attendance, and Rancho Cucamonga cornerback Chris Hawkins, one of the top recruits on the West Coast, made a return appearance wearing a USC hat and shorts.
T.J. McDonald had another solid practice on Tuesday.