McNeal hits the ground running

LOS ANGELES -- It hasn't always been smooth sailing for USC tailback Curtis McNeal.

He overcame a number of obstacles to make it to USC, and then hit several setbacks early in his Trojans career. He adjusted slowly to the coaching change and didn't immediately conform to the expectations of Lane Kiffin and the new staff. His redshirt sophomore season in 2010 was wiped out due to academic ineligibility, and he came close to losing his junior year for the same reason. Kiffin said there was a point when McNeal contemplated walking off the practice field, which would have likely been his last act as a football player at USC.

But McNeal made an about-face last year, gaining eligibility and leading the USC running game with a 1,000-yard season. Kiffin said after Thursday's practice that any sign of dissension or discontentment has disappeared when it comes to McNeal, adding that the senior tailback has become one of the team leaders.

With so much attention on Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and the USC passing game, McNeal will be one of the most important Trojans this season, as he'll once again be asked to carry the ground game, leading a unit that features just three tailbacks.

Kiffin said the improvement in McNeal's game, through just two spring practices, is evident.

"I think Curtis, with no distractions around him -- having been eligible for a year, having 1,000 yards, gaining confidence in himself, being the starter right now -- compared to where he was a year ago, I think he's a lot more comfortable," Kiffin said. "You can see it in parts of his game that have been his weakness--passing game, catching the ball, route running -- he's getting better as an all-around back."