USC running back Curtis McNeal celebrates with fans after scoring a touchdown… (Christina House / For The…)
Curtis McNeal could only watch and wonder last season.
The junior tailback was academically ineligible, so he was unable to show a new USC coaching staff his talent during games.
But McNeal's fortunes appear to be changing.
On Wednesday, a day after summer-session classes ended, Coach Lane Kiffin said "the information we have is that [McNeal] is eligible," so the former Venice High star is aiming for a significant role in the Sept. 3 opener against Minnesota.
"I'm just ready to play," McNeal said after the Trojans' evening workout. "This is my second year in the system, so I'm looking forward to having fun."
With Marc Tyler suspended for the opener and possibly longer, McNeal provides the Trojans with a deceptively physical presence. He is generously listed at 5 feet 7 and 180 pounds, but McNeal initiates contact when he carries the ball and is also an enthusiastic blocker.
"I can protect the quarterback," he said.
McNeal, who gained 33 yards in six carries in 2009, is competing with sophomore Dillon Baxter, redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan and freshman Amir Carlisle.
Other than receiver Robert Woods, no one caught more passes for USC last season than tight end Rhett Ellison.
Now the 6-5, 250-pound Ellison is working at fullback.
Kiffin said the fifth-year senior's experience and knowledge of the offense is allowing him to learn the position while younger players such as Randall Telfer, Xavier Grimble and Christian Thomas work at tight end.
Ellison is enjoying the move, and the perspective from the backfield as opposed to the line of scrimmage.
"You can see what everybody's doing, so you can kind of find your spot, find your window and see who you have to beat," he said. "It's cool. It's a different view."
Ellison caught 21 passes, three for touchdowns, in 2010. His reception total is expected to climb this season whether he is coming out of the backfield or lining up at tight end.
Ellison said he was not thinking about how the versatility might help his NFL prospects.
"I just look at it as a way to get onto the field more here," he said. "The more I can do for USC, the better."
Linebacker Chris Galippo said that an MRI exam on his right shoulder was negative and that he suffered a bruise. … Offensive lineman Giovanni Di Poalo, a redshirt freshman, will have season-ending shoulder surgery, Kiffin said. … Quarterback Jesse Scroggins will see a hand specialist for his injured right thumb. … Offensive lineman Aundrey Walker (hip) and receiver Brice Butler (ankle) were sidelined for the evening workout, the Trojans' second of the day. … Receiver Markeith Ambles has not been participating in practice and won't until he is declared academically eligible, Kiffin said. … A contingent of 20 Marines from Camp Pendleton, who are between deployments to Afghanistan, attended team meetings and the Trojans' evening practice.