(Christina House / For The…)
USC's tailback competition could become a game of Last Man Standing.
Marc Tyler, last season's starter, is suspended for the Sept. 3 opener against Minnesota, and possibly longer.
Junior Curtis McNeal started Sunday's scrimmage at the Coliseum and ran strong on his first two carries before suffering a knee injury when tackled on his third.
The former Venice High star needed assistance in leaving the field, then spent time on the trainer's table and bench before eventually rising from his seat and walking along the sideline.
The extent of his injury was not immediately known, Coach Lane Kiffin said.
Meanwhile, Dillon Baxter continues to impress.
For the second time in as many scrimmages, the sophomore asserted himself with a solid all-around effort, the kind that could win him the starting role regardless of the availability and health of other tailbacks.
With redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan also sidelined for part of the 140-play scrimmage because of knee soreness, Baxter and freshman Amir Carlisle shouldered the load on a day that featured abbreviated appearances by most of the starters.
Baxter rushed for 101 yards in 16 carries and also caught a touchdown pass, capping what Kiffin described as the tailback's best week since arriving at USC in January 2010.
"There's still little hits and misses every once in a while, but I feel like I'm getting more consistency every week and plan to keep building on it," Baxter said, adding that competition for the starting role was not over.
"We still have a little bit more to go," he said, "so I'm going to keep working hard and keep giving everything I've got and hopefully, at the end I'll come out on top."
Quarterbacks hurt by drops
After quarterback Matt Barkley completed 50% of his passes in the first scrimmage, Kiffin targeted a completion percentage of 70% or better for the third-year starter in Sunday's scrimmage.
Barkley fell short, completing 18 of 28 (64%) for 135 yards and a touchdown, but might have reached the goal if not for several dropped passes.
"Not 11 people doing everything right at the same time," Barkley said of the offensive hiccups. "Once we eliminate that . . . I think that's when we really start scoring points and moving the ball down the field every drive."
Freshmen Max Wittek and Cody Kessler also were hurt by several drops but were impressive nevertheless.
Wittek completed 12 of 23 passes for 157 yards and connected with Baxter on a 21-yard scoring play. He also had a pass intercepted.
Kessler was 14 for 21 for 86 yards and a touchdown, with one interception.
Marqise Lee steps up
Robert Woods did not play because of an ankle injury, but his former Gardena Serra High teammate Marqise Lee caught seven passes for 87 yards.
George Farmer, another Serra alumnus, was regarded as the freshman receiver most likely to follow Woods into the lineup in his first season. The 6-foot, 190-pound Lee, however, has been a training-camp revelation.
Barkley compared Lee to Woods and former Trojans receiver Damian Williams.
"He's really kind of taken on what Robert did last year in terms of being a smooth route runner — kind of like Damian was," Barkley said.
Cornerback Torin Harris, playing extensively for the first time since suffering a concussion early in training camp, intercepted a pass. Harris sat out spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery but is regarded as the front-runner to start opposite Nickell Robey. . . . Other than freshman Aundrey Walker, who was recently switched to the position, Kiffin is disappointed by the slow development of players competing to start at guard. "I would hope, at this point, we'd been improving up there and I don't know that we did," he said. . . . Freshman Andre Heidari kicked field goals from 21 and 46 yards. . . . Carlisle gained 75 yards in 15 carries and scored a touchdown.