Playing in the shadow

When Joe McKnight told ESPN's Joe Schad on Friday he was skipping his senior year at USC to enter the NFL draft, he made it sound as if even his best burst couldn't get him out of Reggie Bush's shadow.

Imagine playing in the shade for three straight years.

"My career was OK. It was good, but not like Reggie," McKnight told Schad. "There was a constant pressure to be like Reggie."

The only people who might remember McKnight as they remembered Bush are the USC compliance officials.

He left a mess of unanswered questions behind that Pete Carroll and athletic director Mike Garrett now will have to either clean up or sweep under the rug. So far, they have yet to get on their hands and knees and start scrubbing.

McKnight is under investigation for driving an SUV registered to Santa Monica businessman Scott Schenter. Bush reportedly took all sorts of forbidden goodies, maybe $300,000 worth, before being drafted by the New Orleans Saints and signing for $52.5 million after his junior year.

What that tells us about Bush and McKnight is that they aren't hermetic monks and that they might not have paid much attention to the NCAA's rules. But who, exactly, were the victims of their crimes?

McKnight's infraction might have been as harmless as slipping behind the wheel of his girlfriend's car a few times. It might be as dirty as an athletic program that encourages or ignores the parasitic wannabes who cozy up to its future millionaires, swapping a few baubles now for a swath of treasure later.

Either way, nobody gets left with a bloody lip or winds up in the hospital. Yeah, it's a drag for the walk-ons, who have to take the same punishment in practice and still beg their parents for a little extra cash on date night. The teams that compete with USC on the recruiting trail get stung, especially if they're doing it cleanly.

But you've got to wonder: Does the coverage really fit the crime? Players have committed felonies and gotten less press than McKnight did for driving a Land Rover. As far as anyone can tell, he had a valid driver's license at the time.

You can't yet tell what kind of pro football player McKnight will be. You can safely say that his USC career never lived up to its considerable billing, and he can't blame Bush for that.

As a freshman, McKnight seemed hesitant, both in interviews and on the field. He fumbled the football too easily to gain the coaches' trust. As a sophomore, he seemed to hurt a different body part every week.

Last year, he started showing that combination of speed, elusiveness and reliable hands that made him such a prep star in New Orleans. He was USC's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2005, since guess who? He averaged 6.2 yards per carry. Still, USC went 9-4, the equivalent of 0-12 in some college towns, so McKnight's feats didn't stoke too much fervor.

Now, we'll never know whether he, like Bush, would have won the Heisman Trophy. McKnight is off to collect checks for his running ability, and nobody has to care ever again about what kind of car he drives.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com