The wake-up call came in 2010.
Curtis McNeal hadn't done much in his USC career to date. He redshirted in 2008, had six carries for 33 yards in 2009. He returned a few kickoffs, made a couple of tackles on special teams. He wasn't on the fast-track, but he certainly wasn't under the radar.
Then he became academically ineligible in 2010. Football, what he describes as "the easy stuff," wasn't going to be in his life unless he figured out how to make grades. At a crossroads, he decided to start addressing academics the way he does football: with everything he's got.
"I gained a lot of mental toughness during that time," McNeal said. "I just stepped up to the plate and told myself nothing is going to be handed to me. I have to work for it. That's pretty much what I did ... it was frustrating, but it was a wake-up call. The way I go about football, I should go about that in all aspects of my life. If I'm serious about football, I should be serious about school. It made me grow up and be more responsible."
And now he's the unquestioned starting running back for the USC Trojans -- an elite fraternity that includes five Heisman Trophy winners (one of which was vacated). And of all the top-tier running backs returning this season, it's McNeal who holds the highest yards per carry.
Consider, seven Pac-12 running backs rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year. All of them had at least 230 carries. Except McNeal, who went for 1,005 yards on just 145 carries, giving him a robust average of 6.9 yards per that was second in the conference to only to LaMichael James' 7.3.
But he still doesn't get mentioned among the league's elite backs. USC, as has been well-documented, has some depth questions at the running back position. By no fault of his own, McNeal as a result gets downgraded because of who isn't behind him.
That's fine, says McNeal. He's happy to be the answer to all of the questions.
"This is a great team," he said. "We have great receivers and whenever I touch the ball I just try to make plays. I don't worry about what people say. I know what kind of talent I have and I know what I'm capable of doing."
And then there are the durability questions. After all, he's only 5-7, 190 pounds. Surely, he's too fragile to carry the ball 25 times a game. Isn't he?
"I'm always going to be criticized for my size," he said. "I just need to show everybody that every time I touch the ball, I'm just as good as the guys they praise. You can't let it get to you. You just keep playing and do your job for your team. If you're doing that, you don't have to worry about what anyone else says."
And doing his job is what McNeal is focused on in 2012. The Trojans enter the season with considerable hype and expectation. McNeal says it's not deserved.
"We have nothing to show for it," he said. "We didn't play in a bowl game. We lost two games. We still have things to show people. We're not done yet. That's our mindset. We have a long way to go."
And as many Trojans have done over the past few months, he fell back on coach Lane Kiffin's motto for the season: Prep not hype.
"That's what we live by here is the preparation, not the hype," McNeal said. "We'll be prepared every week and believe in our preparation, believe in our technique and then just go out and play football."