Tailback Joe McKnight is USC's leading rusher with 1,014 yards this… (Michael Conroy / Associated…)
Joe McKnight returned to practice Thursday, but it's still not known whether USC's leading rusher will be allowed to play against Boston College in Saturday's Emerald Bowl.
USC has been investigating McKnight's relationship with Santa Monica businessman Scott Schenter. The Times reported last week that McKnight had been observed driving a 2006 Land Rover registered to Schenter, who has marketing connections and previously created a web domain 4joemcknight.com and ojaymayo.com.
NCAA rules prohibit student-athletes from accepting benefits from marketing representatives or agents, or "extra benefits" from anyone based on athletic ability.
USC's athletic program is already under investigation by the NCAA and Pacific 10 Conference regarding allegations that former tailback Reggie Bush and former basketball player O.J. Mayo received improper benefits while playing for the Trojans.
The NCAA combined the investigations to examine whether the school failed to exert proper institutional control.
McKnight, who has rushed for 1,014 yards, arrived in the Bay Area from Los Angeles late Wednesday night and participated in the Trojans' final practice at City College of San Francisco. The junior donned a black scout-team jersey before returning to his regular No. 4 and worked briefly with the starting unit.
The majority of his practice was spent with reserves.
Through a school spokesman, McKnight declined to address reporters after practice. USC compliance officials and attorneys have not returned telephone messages left by The Times.
Trojans Coach Pete Carroll called McKnight's appearance "a step in the right direction."
"There's still other things to be done, there's still other processing to be taken care of, and we don't know when that's going to happen," Carroll said. "The fact that they got this far along allows us to think that there's a legitimate chance for him to be OK to play."
Carroll, however, measured his optimism, saying he didn't know the specific information still being sought by USC compliance officials.
"They're trying to verify some information through documentation and get comfortable with what they've received to declare that everything is fine," Carroll said. "It's just difficult. It's Christmas and everything you can think of makes it hard timing for the deadline we have Saturday.
"Hopefully, the results will turn out for him to be part of the game."
McKnight told The Times last week that he had never driven the Land Rover and that it was being driven by his girlfriend, Johanna Michelle Beltran, who is the mother of McKnight's 10-month-old son.
McKnight said that Beltran was Schenter's secretary.
USC has since said that McKnight had registered the car as one he was driving.
Schenter has said that Beltran was a longtime family friend and that he registered the Land Rover, which carried a purchase price of about $27,000, because Beltran's family could not qualify for a loan.
Schenter said Beltran was paying for the insurance and making loan payments of a little more than $500 a month.
Schenter was expected to meet with USC officials earlier this week.
He has not responded to questions from The Times asking him to explain his relationship with McKnight, Beltran or USC.
A USC athletic department spokesman did not detail what McKnight told compliance officials or confirm if Schenter has met with any USC representatives.
Of McKnight's meeting with compliance officials, Carroll said, "I don't know if he handled it all right or not."
The coach said McKnight has experienced a difficult week. "He's happy to be here but worn, understandably," Carroll said. "All of this has been challenging for Joe."
Junior Allen Bradford remains on track to start in McKnight's place, but play-caller Jeremy Bates says the Trojans have a plan in place and will adjust depending on McKnight's availability.
"We're definitely talking about it," Bates said. "We're still waiting to find out what the final verdict is."
Klein reported from San Francisco, Pugmire from Los Angeles.