+Good power for size
+Surprisingly good pass blocker
-3 career catches
-Academically ineligible in 2010
-Not a great returner
-Unlikely to maintain durability
-Tiny, but doesn’t fit the mold of scatback/Danny Woodhead/Dexter McCluster
USC running back Curtis McNeal is fun to watch. He might not be great in the NFL, and he probably won’t stay healthy long enough to ever be any every down player, but his combination of skinniness and toughness makes him an interesting prospect.
McNeal has below average measurables. He has awful height at 5’7, poor bulk at 182lbs, and only average speed relative to his size with a 4.43 40 yard dash (4.43 is average for a guy that tiny). He does have impressive long speed, though.
McNeal has terrific stats. He didn’t get any significant playing time until last season (academically ineligible as a sophomore, only 6 carries as a freshman), but, last season, he was terrific. First of all, he didn’t become a starter until USC had finished half of its season. In the first 5 games, he never got as much as 10 carries in a game, but got the starting job after playing really well off the bench in the game against Cal after USC had taken a 20-0 lead. In the final 6 games, he had at least 10 carries in each game, and no team could hold him to a yards per carry below 4.7 as a starter. He played well in every game, getting 1005 yards on 145 carries for an astonishing 6.9 yards per carry. However, as a running back, you know it’s a problem if your yards per carry is higher than your number of receptions in a season. McNeal caught only 3 passes for 19 yards in his 6 games as a starter. And his career 18.1 yards per kickoff return, along with his reception numbers, pretty much rule out the idea of him being a running back/wide receiver/Danny Woodhead/Dexter McCluster type player in the NFL. It’s running back or bust for McNeal.
McNeal isn’t a great athlete. When you are looking at a running back as small as McNeal, you are kind of expecting him to run a sub 4.4 40 and be lightning quick to have any success in the NFL (again, Danny Woodhead). That’s not McNeal. McNeal has excellent change of direction skills but no suddenness or quickness with the way he moves. He does have deceptive long speed, though, and, much of the time, he is moving faster than eyes suggest, which means that players constantly take poor angles in pursuit of him after grossly underestimating his speed. McNeal may not be an amazing athlete, but he can get the job done.
McNeal has excellent vision. Something I love about McNeal; he hits the hole quickly. I think patience is overrated in a running back. It can lead to plays that go for negative yardage. However, with guys like McNeal, when they get the ball, they try to run to the line of scrimmage as quickly as possible to prevent a negative play and see if they can find a hole to burst through. They don’t want to give the defensive linemen a lot of time to read the play and find them in pursuit. Guys like McNeal try to get past defensive linemen before they even know if it was a handoff or a play action. They don’t give the defense time to react while they are looking for a hole to run through. And I like it. McNeal hits the hole quickly, he follows his blocks, and he has great balance along the sideline.
McNeal has solid power for a back as small as he is. One thing that really jumps out on film is his terrific balance. His balance might be better than that of any back in this draft class. It’s virtually impossible to take him out by his legs because of his terrific balance, and, even if you do take him out by his legs, he often catches himself. The only way to bring him down is to wrap him up. With his tiny body, wrapping him up is pretty easy, but the one thing that is pretty deceptive about guys like McNeal from a power standpoint is getting yards after contact. Big, bruising running backs are the ones expected to get the most yards after contact (basically, they fall forward as they are being tackled), but that’s not always the case. Guys like McNeal and Zac Stacy of Vanderbilt (absolute super sleeper) get a lot of yards after contact because, even though they aren’t strong, they hit you at high speeds. It’s like saying a car is significantly more powerful than a bullet. Cars are tough to slow down because they are big. However, even though bullets may be small, they are so fast that, when they hit you, they aren’t going to slow down much. As a running back, in terms of getting yards after contact, what’s important is the size to speed ratio and if the running back is always running at full speed. Bulk helps for breaking tackles, but in terms of getting yards after contact (falling forward), speed/toughness play a big role, and, since McNeal is always running at top speed, he will get surprising yards after contact. Not going to run many guys over, but will get the job done.
McNeal is average on pass plays. First of all, on most pass plays, McNeal blocks. Seriously. 5’7, 182lbs, blocks on pass plays. I’m not kidding. See for yourself. Can’t believe it. You know what I really can’t believe? He’s a productive pass blocker. Seriously. Watch the video of that game. Can’t believe it. Stanford defenders should be embarrassed that they can’t shed his blocks. Unbelievable. He does amazing cut blocks, he has confusing strength for his size, and he uses ideal blocking fundamentals. I still don’t know how he can even be an adequate pass blocker. Feels like any pass rush move would work against his short arms and not very wide base. But he still gets the job done. However, he isn’t much of a receiver. He has poor hands (will even drop the ball on a halfback toss), and he’s not very quick. Plus, hey, he only has 3 career catches, so he can’t be much of a receiver. Still, he is adequate on pass plays.
One day, McNeal will be injured. I don’t know how he has gone as long as he has without any sort of injury. The guy is minuscule. His combination of a lack of size and a tough running style should be a recipe for injuries. But he took on a huge workload toward the end of the season and never had the slightest injury. I don’t really know how. Pretty surprising, but he won’t stay healthy forever. It’s nearly impossible. However, I will say I am impressed by his endurance. He can go pretty late into a game and not wear down. Still, I think his durability isn’t sustainable.
Overall, I like McNeal. I like his surprising combination of toughness and lack of size. He’s a scrappy player. He may never amount to much in the NFL, but you never know.
NFL Comparison: Steve Slaton, except he catches fewer passes. Both of them have fumbling problems, are undersized, solid athletes, etc.
Grade: 67 (worthy of an early fourth round pick)
Projection: 60 (will be a late fourth to early fifth round pick)