USC running back Curtis McNeal celebrates with quarterback Matt Barkley… (Christina House / For The…)
USC's starting tailback job is turning into a moving target.
That, at least, is the way Coach Lane Kiffin is playing it publicly.
Redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan started the first scrimmage, sophomore Dillon Baxter moved ahead with a strong performance, and Friday, Kiffin said junior Curtis McNeal was in the lead.
Whether that's true or just another motivational ploy by Kiffin to keep the trio and freshman Amir Carlisle on edge won't be known until the Trojans open the season Sept. 3 against Minnesota.
But Kiffin once again praised McNeal for a turnaround in attitude, saying the former Venice High star had "come further than anyone in our program from the day we got here."
Though summer-session grades had not been officially posted, Kiffin said this week that McNeal was eligible. The fourth-year junior sat out last season because of academic issues.
"When you put everything together, now that's he's eligible, he's even playing better," Kiffin said after another three-hour practice Friday. "He's probably the most complete right now. ... I think he'd be a little ahead."
It's worth noting that Kiffin made that determination on a day when the 5-foot-7 McNeal ran down 6-4, 310-pound defensive tackle DaJohn Harris, who intercepted a tipped pass and nearly returned it 70 yards for a touchdown.
But it was also a practice in which Baxter quietly and impressively cut through the defense again with a seemingly newfound determination.
Where do the tailbacks really stand?
Kiffin said the Trojans would ideally prefer to alternate two tailbacks in games, with playing time and carries determined by how they were performing.
"We try to get to that, but we're not going to force that if it doesn't happen," he said. "If they're all muddled up and we still don't have it figured out, then we may have to rotate. But that's not our ideal situation."
Quarterback Jesse Scroggins attended practice with a cast on his right hand.
Scroggins, a redshirt freshman, said doctors did not provide a timeline for his return from surgery on damaged ligaments. He could not recall how his thumb was injured during Monday's scrimmage.
"I just remember throwing the ball, and a couple plays later the pain started coming," he said. "The next day, it really started hurting and swelling up.
"I went into the doctor. He looked at it, and he said: 'Yeah, you're definitely going to need surgery.' "
Scroggins is unconcerned about falling behind freshmen Cody Kessler and Max Wittek in the competition to back up starter Matt Barkley.
"Coach Kiffin said at some point in your college career, you're going to go through adversity," Scroggins said. "I guess I just went through mine early."
The Trojans will go through a lighter practice Saturday in preparation for their scrimmage Sunday at the Coliseum. ... Asked what he thought about the possibility of an NFL team coming to Los Angeles, Kiffin said he thought it would be great. "Maybe the Raiders will be coming," he deadpanned. Asked if he would like to coach them, he said, "No, I have my dream job. I'm happy."