Joe McKnight’s uncertain status muddies USC tailback situation

USC has already installed its game plan for Saturday’s game against Boston College in the Emerald Bowl.

In question is which tailbacks actually will be part of the plan when the Trojans take the field Saturday at AT&T Park.

Joe McKnight’s status is uncertain.

USC, which resumes practice today before leaving for San Francisco, is investigating the junior’s use of a sport utility vehicle that is registered to a Santa Monica businessman. It may constitute a violation of NCAA rules that prohibit student-athletes from accepting benefits from marketing representatives or agents, or “extra benefits” from anyone based on athletic ability.

McKnight has said he never drove the 2006 Land Rover, which a Department of Motor Vehicles official said carried a purchase price of about $27,000. But McKnight has been observed driving the vehicle.

Todd Dickey, USC’s senior vice president for administration, said last week that school officials planned to speak with the vehicle’s owner, Scott Schenter, early this week. Schenter owns and has worked for several companies with marketing interests, but he has said that he “has nothing to do with agents, marketing players or representing athletes.”

Schenter said he registered the Land Rover because McKnight’s girlfriend, Johanna Michelle Beltran, was a longtime family friend who could not qualify for a loan. Beltran makes payments on the loan and is responsible for insurance, he said. McKnight has said that Beltran is Schenter’s secretary.

USC’s athletic program is already under investigation by the NCAA and Pacific 10 Conference regarding allegations that former tailback Reggie Bush and former basketball player O.J. Mayo received improper benefits while playing for the Trojans. The NCAA combined the investigations to examine whether the school failed to exert proper institutional control.

Last week, Dickey defended the university’s vigilance in monitoring athletes and addressing red flags.

“We monitor more than 600 athletes very carefully and we have a very strong compliance program,” he said. “We believe we have a very good system in place. We think our controls and monitoring are very good.”

USC’s athletic program, like all major programs, “has a great deal of visibility,” said Tom Yeager, a former chairman of the NCAA infractions committee. “They know they’re higher-profile athletes and they’re under more scrutiny to begin with.”

Yeager, commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Assn., allowed that “Los Angeles is a heck of a lot different than a small college burg where you run into everyone you know. There’s a certain reasonableness that comes into play.”

But Yeager, speaking generally, said oversight “runs to kind of general common-sense monitoring,” and pointed to coaches as the main watchdogs of their players.

“Coaches know where they came from and what their means are,” Yeager said. “If all of a sudden a player who they know doesn’t have a lot of financial means is driving a car that seems to be very above what the normal student should be driving, and you’re walking by it every day, it’s kind of common sense that people should be seeking out details.”

If McKnight is ruled ineligible for Saturday’s game, that would mean increased roles for juniors AllenBradford and C.J. Gable against Boston College.

Bradford did not practice Friday because of a knee strain he suffered the day before, but he is expected to practice today. Gable, buried on the depth chart all season, has performed more impressively at times than any of the other tailbacks since bowl practices began.