Might be McNeal's time

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."

McNeal, who had a chance to compete for the starting job in advance of Week 1 while Tyler was suspended, doesn't plan on changing his approach.

"I prepare every game like I'm going to start," McNeal said. "This game doesn't change anything even though one guy went down. I'll be ready to go.

"If I'm the third guy I'll still be ready to go, so I'll be ready no matter what happens."

What happened last Thursday against Cal was this: Tyler started the game and was ineffective against a fairly impressive Bears' front four, and then came out of the game when he got hurt on the first play of the second half. From there, McNeal took control, carrying the ball a career-high 17 times for a career-high 86 yards and adding a 10-yard reception.

He was, for all intents and purposes, USC's No. 1 running back for the final 29 minutes of the game. And he loved it.

"I was just more comfortable," McNeal said. "I mean, I knew I was gonna stay in the game instead of going in one play and going right back. I got into a groove and I was just out there having fun."

McNeal says he was just having fun. Polamalu describes it a little bit differently.

"That kid ran with violence," he said. "He ran hard, he knew the angles and he knew he was unblocked.

"And that, to me, is where we as running backs get better and better."

Another way they get better: regular carries. The easiest way for a running back to continuously improve, it has been said, is to get a steady diet of in-game carries. That finally has happened for McNeal the last two games, and the growth has been obvious.

It was the fall of 2007 -- at Venice High -- the last time he got as many carries in a game as he did on Thursday against Cal.

"As I got more carries, I knew how it was gonna feel, how they were going to approach me and I pretty much just played smart football," McNeal says. "It just gets you more comfortable as a football player, the more snaps you get. You just see more stuff that you wouldn't see from the sidelines.

"I saw a lot last game and I'm ready for this game."