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Football: Made in Detroit, Ragin' Cajuns linebacker McCaskill is geared to go

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Sept. 23, 2020

Playing as a backup a season ago, Lorenzo McCaskill did not see the field nearly as much as his Detroit-made engine was geared to go.

Yet he still managed 57 total tackles in 2019, second among UL team leaders behind only the man who started ahead of him, then-senior Mike inside linebacker Jacques Boudreaux.

“I averaged something like maybe 20-something, 30-something snaps (per game),” McCaskill said a few weeks before the 2020 season got underway. “I’m pretty sure that will change.”

Wow was he ever right.

Ragin’ Cajuns coach Billy Napier said McCaskill was in on 61 plays during nationally ranked UL’s 34-31 overtime victory at Georgia State last Saturday night in Atlanta.

He has plenty of productivity to show for the extra opportunity, including a team-high and career-high 12 total tackles with eight solo stops including a sack in the Cajuns’ win over the Panthers.

Related:What we learned from No. 21 Cajuns' OT win at Georgia State

More:Mitchell leaves no doubt in UL OT win at Georgia State

Linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill takes the field for UL's game against Appalachian State last season.

McCaskill, a product of the Detroit area’s Southfield A&T who came to UL from Holmes (Mississippi) Community College prior to the 2018 season, also had a team-high 10 tackles in UL’s season-opening upset win at then-No. 25 Iowa State one week earlier.

That matched his previous career high of 10 in a 2019 win over UL Monroe.

With 22 total tackles to date, he’d be on track for 154 if the Cajuns – limited to 11 regular-season games this season instead of the originally scheduled 12 by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic – were able to play 14 times like they did when they went 11-3 while also losing last year’s Sun Belt Conference championship game at Appalachia State and beating Miami (Ohio) in the LendingTree Bowl.

“He’s done well,” Napier, whose 2-0 Cajuns – ranked No. 25 in the Amway Coaches Poll and No. 19 in the AP Top 25 heading into Saturday morning’s ESPN2-televised home opener against Georgia Southern – said earlier this week.

“I think he’s really (taken) a step forward as a person. Much more consistent. He has perspective about life. He has good relationships with his teammates. He’s a loyal guy. It’s very important to him to do his job for the team.”

Related:How to watch Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns vs. Georgia Southern football on TV, live stream

More:Cajuns still nationally ranked after win that wasn't pretty

More:UL nationally ranked in both Top 25 college football polls

'A LONG RIDE'

Kicked off the Cajun roster for undisclosed disciplinary reasons midway through a 2018 season in which he also was limited to just four games by an ankle injury, then later reinstated, McCaskill headed into his 2019 redshirt sophomore season with a new lease and into his 2020 redshirt junior season with a renewed outlook.

“It’s been a long ride,” he said back in August.

“But I think I’m grateful for everything I did go through to be able to be a better person, a better player, a better teammate.

“It’s exciting, but it can end at any point. So, I always keep that in mind. I’m not trying to be satisfied or anything,” McCaskill added. “I’m just trying to go on the right path, and just keep that right head that, ‘Okay, even though I may be in a leader position I’m working like I’m not a leader and continuing to grind.’ Because it can be taken away from you at any point.”

McCaskill knows, the hard way.

He also did not travel, for undisclosed reasons, with the Cajuns for their win last season over Ohio of the MAC, a game he was eagerly awaiting because family members from nearby Michigan would have gotten to see him play.

Related:Out of Detroit, UL's McCaskill hopes mistakes are behind

More:Death in Detroit made UL's McCaskill seek a better path

Yet McCaskill, who originally signed with Cincinnati despite a late opportunity with Michigan State coming out of high school, has refused to let any close call with the rug being pulled out from under keep him down.

“I never had that thought process of ‘I’m done,’ ” he said. “It’s, ‘I have to work to do.’ That’s it.

“You’ve got to pray, work hard and get back on your feet.”

'HE PLAYS WITH A MOTOR'

He may not be the model Mike.

Not yet.

But Napier likes how McCaskill rebounded in the latter half of last year, and how he’s responded to the new responsibilities he’s taken on this year.

“He’s really learned a lot about football,” the Cajuns coach said Monday. “I think he’s become a really good student of the game.

“He’s tough, he’s physical. And he plays with a motor. It’s not always picture-perfect. But he does play with effort.”

Teammates can tell, and so too can first-year defensive coordinator Patrick Toney, who was elevated from safeties coach after ex-UL d-coordinator Ron Roberts left earlier this year for the same position at Baylor.

“He’s been taking it serious,” Toney said a day before preseason camp opened early August.

More:Just 30 years old, new UL DC Toney seeks forward steps

Around the same time, Napier commended McCaskill – who he also said was an “exceptional student” – for how he’s bounced back up off the mat.

“So, you know, this guy he’s been through it, right?” the Cajuns coach said. “He’s had it taken away from him, and one of the things I think that’s been most impressive about the Lorenzo is he has integrity.

“He addresses the issue, right? Often times players will avoid issues, where I think the Lorenzo has really addressed his issues and developed plans to get better, and we’re so proud of Lorenzo.

“He’s got a couple more years with us and we’re looking forward to helping him continue to progress as a person and a student,” Napier added. “Certainly we all know the football will take care of itself if he can continue to do those things right.”

REARVIEW MIRROR

Back in the spring, before they lost 12 of 15 scheduled practices to the coronavirus crisis, the Cajuns knew they would have their hands full making up for the loss of Boudreaux, a part-time starter as sophomore in 2017 who went on to open all 28 games of his 2018 and ’19 junior and senior seasons.

Toney called Boudreaux “a very productive player for us.”

It’s an understatement.

Related:Cajuns linebacker Boudreaux ready for the next step in 'last go-round'

“When you talk about Jacques, he was as good of an example of what we want our young men to leave here (being),” Napier said.

“A graduate, a tremendous leader, a guy that was very productive as a player, did an unbelievable job representing the team and the university in the community, and will continue to do great things in life.

“He certainly was a really good leader and a really good communicator on our defense,” Napier added. “He was an unbelievable practice player. Always had great attitude, energy.”

It’s a lot for any one individual to follow in such footsteps, so it’s become something of a by-committee thing as McCaskill continues to grow.

The Cajuns knew they’d have sixth-year senior Ferrod Gardner coming back to start at the Will inside spot, and they knew they’d have Jourdan Quibodeaux back in a backup reserve role.

But with Boudreaux’s team-high 93 total tackles from 2018 and team-leading 106 from 2019 things of the past, they also moved Kris Moncrief – now McCaskill’s backup – back to inside linebacker after he spent the 2019 season playing on the outside.

“We just all came in one day and we decided we all have to step up and be one; we’re all going to have to be leaders in the room and on the field as well,” Moncrief said. “So we all just started pushing each other, and we tell ourselves every day we have to motivate each other and the team.”

More:UL linebacker Gardner jumped at chance for sixth season

'PEDAL TO THE METAL'

Beyond moving Moncrief, though, Napier knew a lot more would have to fall on McCaskill, a weight room lover who has packed somewhere around 25-to-30 pounds onto the 6-foot, 200-pound frame he brought to UL.

Back in March, the Cajuns coach deemed his new starting Mike fit for the task.

For that, he credits not only McCaskill but also Mike Giuliani, who worked as a graduate assistant with UL inside linebackers last season and now is their outside linebackers coach, and Roberts.

“I’m really confident in Lorenzo, because I’m watching him work every day,” Napier said then.

“Lorenzo is a guy that’s very motivated. And I think a lot of Lorenzo’s success is reflected in how he’s evolved as a person. … I mean, I think he’s really come to grips with who he is. He’s made necessary changes.

“You know,” Napier added, “Lorenzo evolved as a player partly because he bought into the football IQ aspect of the game (last season). And he played much more effectively. And his snaps increased as a result of that.”

Now, they’ve increased even more.

To what degree?

Napier defines in Detroit-friendly terms.

“He really just tasted it a little bit last year,” the Cajuns coach said, “and now he’s been pedal to the metal.”

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