Written by Dave Dulberg, USC blog contributor
For redshirt junior running back Curtis McNeal, "Moody" is a nickname of the past.
In 2010, academic eligibility issues forced McNeal (six career carries for 33 yards as a Trojan) to sit for the entire season, putting a proverbial spotlight on whether or not he had the maturity and the mindset to survive at USC. Coupled with questions about his passion for the game and diminutive stature (5'7", 180 pounds), the local product seemed to be standing on the outside looking in when it came to the running back competition heading into this season.
But when No. 22 hit Howard Jones Field last week for the first night of practice, something was noticeably different. His smile was wider, his pass blocks were louder and his strides appeared more graceful than ever before.
"It [being away from the game] made me take things a little more seriously," McNeal said. "I've matured during my time away from football. I really missed it, and I am ready to get back to it."
His personal growth is commendable regardless of how far a leap he makes on the depth chart, but for McNeal merely getting back on the field isn't enough. Thus far, McNeal has shown flashes of the player that once was named the 2007 All-LA City Offensive MVP at nearby Venice HS, with several long runs that illustrate a young man who's not running from his past, but instead embracing the present.
"I am getting real comfortable playing football again," said McNeal. "This is Running Back University, and you are playing with the best of the best. I am just trying to stay on top and keep competing. If I can come back and somehow am named the starter, it would be one of the greatest accomplishments of my life."
Although the running back competition is a long ways away from being settled given the noteworthy performances of freshman Amir Carlisle, redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan and sophomore Dillon Baxter, the beaming grin Kennedy Polamalu (running backs coach) flashes when talking about McNeal's road to reclamation says it all.
"He has been outstanding for us, from an effort, toughness and balance standpoint," said Polamalu on McNeal's first week at camp. "Obviously with his size, he has shown us his tremendous leverage. More than anything, though, it's his football IQ that stands out."
The now academically eligible McNeal is getting good grades on and off the field, but Polamalu said it's the bonds McNeal has suddenly formed with teammates that truly echoes how far he's come.
"When I came here, I really didn't know him because he wasn't a back I recruited," said Polamalu. "He has had a tough home life, yet he hasn't made any excuses about it. But, I think he now knows that myself as well as his teammates are here for him. This team has sort of gravitated towards him and become his family."
(Photos by John McGillen)