Competition heats up for tailback spot

The starting tailback job at USC comes with some hefty expectations and a whole lot of history. Five Trojans have won the Heisman Trophy at the position, earning USC the nickname “Tailback U.”

Opportunity · After a tumultuous freshman year in which he was suspended on two seperate occasions, sophomore tailback Dillon Baxter could start in the Trojans’ season opener against Minnesota on Sept. 3. - Daily Trojan file photo

The job was supposed to be senior Marc Tyler’s this year, but USC is looking to other players to step up after coach Lane Kiffin suspended Tyler from the season opener against Minnesota.

Tyler was suspended after comments he made in an interview with TMZ, when he implied that USC paid its players. The Trojans’ leading rusher last season with 913 yards and nine touchdowns, Tyler has been barred from team practices, workouts and meetings but has been working out alone at Heritage Hall, Kiffin said.

“He may never be back,” Kiffin said at Pac-12 media day in late July. “We would hope that he’s back. That would mean he’s got everything in order.”

USC’s running back stable is deep and talented, but none of the others quite have the size the 230-pound Tyler offers.

Speedy redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan appears to be one of the leading candidates to start the opener based on carries in practice.

Morgan spent last season recovering from a torn ACL suffered during his senior year of high school. Though he didn’t log any game action in 2010, Morgan still impressed the coaching staff enough to win an award given to the team’s best offensive player in practice last season.

“I just want to get better so the coaches don’t have to worry about me as much,” Morgan said. “I want to be one of those guys that they know is going to do the right thing.”

Morgan’s speed — he won the California state title in the 110-meter hurdles in high school — is his greatest asset, but the coaches expect him to do a better job in securing the ball to avoid fumbles.

Sophomore Dillon Baxter returns after one of the most talked-about freshman seasons in school history. Unfortunately for Baxter, the talk centered on what he did off the field — he was suspended for last year’s opener at Hawaii for a violation of team rules and held out of a Nov. 20 game at Oregon State for contact with an agent — rather than what he accomplished on it — 59 carries for 252 yards.

Kiffin has been impressed with what he’s seen so far from Baxter, noting on the first day of camp he came back “bigger, faster and stronger than he was” and that “he’s a different guy, attitude-wise.”

Baxter also said he is focusing on getting up the field quicker, rather than “dancing” behind the line of scrimmage.

“I have too much speed so I’ve got to get somewhere soon,” Baxter said. “I guess it’s better to just cut up and make moves later.”

Junior Curtis McNeal is the elder statesman of the group, but has only carried the ball six times during his Trojan career. Generously listed at 5-foot-7, McNeal’s bruising running style defies stereotypes about his small frame.

“I run the ball hard every time,” McNeal said. “Every time I get a chance to knock somebody out, I knock them out.”

McNeal missed all of last season because he was academically ineligible, but Kiffin announced last week McNeal would be eligible this fall.

“You just don’t know,” McNeal said about his excitement to play again this year. “Once I figured it out and got a hold of everything, I was just like, ‘Yes, I can finally just focus on football.’”

The chase to replace Tyler for the opener was expected to be a three-way race until true freshman Amir Carlisle turned heads on the first day of fall practice with his big play potential.

Carlisle, a high school All-American at Kings Academy in Northern California, rushed for 2,110 yards and 28 touchdowns during his senior season.

Kiffin and quarterback Matt Barkley routinely listed Carlisle’s name first when asked which freshmen impressed them early in USC’s fall camp.

“Amir’s standing out,” Kiffin said after one practice. “He continues to every day.”

Despite the dog-eat-dog nature of the competition, the running backs insist they have stayed close as a group.

“We all hang out on our off time,” Morgan said. “We even still talk to Marc. He texts me every day and we talk. He tells me how he’s doing and I tell him what we’re doing out here.”