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USC FOOTBALL

USC's D.J. Morgan gets chance to display his skills

The redshirt freshman is one of only two uninjured scholarship tailbacks in a program that lacks the experience and depth of recent seasons. USC concludes spring practice with a scrimmage Saturday.

April 21, 2011|By Gary Klein
  • USC running back D.J. Morgan is eager to showcase the speed and poise that made him a star at Woodland Hills Taft.
USC running back D.J. Morgan is eager to showcase the speed and poise that… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

USC tailback D.J. Morgan circled the display cases, checking out the Heisman trophies in Heritage Hall.

"You could win one of those if you keep working," noted a senior linebacker, walking past.

Morgan nodded contemplatively.

Then he grinned.

The exchange took place last fall when Morgan was a freshman working his way back from major knee surgery.

This spring, the former Woodland Hills Taft High star has shown speed, shiftiness and power in pushing to move up the depth chart.

Morgan should get plenty of opportunities to showcase his skills Saturday when the Trojans conclude spring practice with a scrimmage at the Coliseum.

The redshirt freshman is one of only two uninjured scholarship tailbacks in a program that no longer boasts the experience or depth of recent seasons.

Returning starter Marc Tyler is the only holdover from 2007, when the Trojans had 10 scholarship tailbacks on the roster. The fifth-year senior sat out the first two weeks of spring practice because of a hamstring injury and was sidelined most of the last two because of a concussion. Tyler returned to a no-contact practice Thursday.

Sophomore Dillon Baxter has made strides on and off the field, but a high ankle sprain suffered two weeks ago probably will keep him sidelined or limit him Saturday. Baxter practiced Thursday and said he was not full strength.

Curtis McNeal is enjoying a productive spring after sitting out last season because of academic ineligibility, but Coach Lane Kiffin won't know whether the compact fourth-year junior will be eligible until grades are posted next month.

Then there's Morgan.

"I want to establish myself as one of the main go-to guys on offense," he said.

Last season, that role largely belonged to Tyler. The former Westlake Village Oaks Christian star ascended to the top of the depth chart in training camp and rushed for a team-best 913 yards and nine touchdowns.

But Tyler reported to spring practice weighing 232 pounds, 15 more than he weighed last season. He was injured the first day of practice.

"Marc knows his issues; we've discussed it over and over — he cannot put weight on," running backs coach Kennedy Pola said.

Tyler said last week that he made too many trips to "McDonalds and Wingstop" during the off-season but will once again be fit and ready when training camp begins in August.

The missed time during spring, he said, will not set him back.

"You need multiple running backs," he said. "A lot of them are young. This will give them a better opportunity to learn more."

Baxter presumably learned several lessons last season when he was suspended for two games, once for violating team rules and another for accepting a ride on a golf cart from a student who, unbeknown to Baxter, was also an agent.

"Whatever people think of me, I mean, that's what you can think," he said. "But I'm moving forward and I grew up a little bit."

Baxter's challenge this spring was to resist his instinct to sidestep every defender and evolve into a stronger runner.

"A top-tier college running back has to break tackles and add some physical determination to your style," Pola said. "It's not just oohs and ahhs."

Kiffin said the 5-foot-7 McNeal, because of attitude issues, was "an inch away from being off the team," in the weeks following the new staff's arrival last February. But McNeal said he has changed his outlook. The shift, along with his physical style, has seemingly won over the coaching staff.

"I don't run away from contact," McNeal said. "I just love contact so I always go near it."

Pola, however, is reserving judgment.

"Until he handles the academic issue, there's always going to be a hesitation of falling in love with somebody," he said.

Pola and Kiffin cannot help but be smitten with the 6-foot, 175-pound Morgan, whose attitude and work ethic are held up as an examples to teammates.

Morgan is still hesitant to make certain cuts but expects to be at full strength by August, when freshmen Amir Carlisle and Javorius Allen will join the tailback corps.

"I'm excited about him," Pola said of Morgan. "Especially his makeup."

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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