Out of Detroit, UL's McCaskill hopes mistakes are behind
At one point in high school, Michigan State was a very real possibility. On National Signing Day in 2017, he went instead with Cincinnati.
Ultimately, neither opportunity materialized.
But all Lorenzo McCaskill really wanted to do was get out. Start fresh. It didn’t really matter where. Just somewhere besides his native Detroit. Somewhere mistakes, and the pain of a premature death, would be in the rearview mirror.
So first the linebacker headed south, for one season — 2017 — at Holmes Community College in Mississippi.
As McCaskill was re-recruited, FBS offers came in again. Ole Miss delivered one, in December 2017. But he didn’t end up in Oxford, either.
Instead, shortly after the holidays, he hopped in his car and secretly started driving. South again. The mission was the same: Just not Detroit. The destination was Lafayette, for a recruiting visit to UL. Somewhere along the way, he detoured to Alabama.
That’s when Lorenzo Sr. phoned.
The younger McCaskill had to explain where he was, what he was up to, and why.
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“I was kind of tired of hearing all my people pressuring me to get out of the city,” he said of how he ended up at UL, an improbable landing spot for someone from the Motor City and all its many mean streets. “I actually drove 20 hours down here by myself.
“I didn’t even let my parents know until I was in Alabama. My dad called me. He was like, ‘Where you at?’ I’m like, ‘I’m in Alabama.’ He’s like, ‘You’re in Alabama?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’”
McCaskill said he was in Tuscaloosa at the same time the Crimson Tide was celebrating with its 2017 season national-championship trophy.
But he had to get back on track, and that meant following through with the January 2018 trip to UL.
Lorenzo Sr. provided the encouragement to go where he should, even if Louisiana wasn’t where he initially thought he’d be.
“I come from Detroit,” McCaskill said. “You know, it’s kind of the rougher part of the United States.
“They (family members) wanted me out of the city. I kind of always pictured being at a bigger school, but my dad was telling me, you know, ‘It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter where you go. As long as you play hard, you’re gonna get noticed.’”
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Why was it so important that he get out?
“You know, I’ve seen a lot,” he said.
“I’ve made some mistakes. I’ve seen people around me make mistakes. You know, most of my family made a lot of mistakes.
“And I should have learned from them, but I didn’t, and I made my own mistakes,” McCaskill added. “I had a lot of people close to me pass away.”
McCaskill doesn’t divulge many details.
But his Twitter timeline offers hints here and there of what he’s faced, and the odds stacked against him, like this one, from Feb. 16:
“I’m from a city we’re it’s a competition who can stay alive the longest”
Shortly after Billy Napier was hired as UL’s head coach in December 2017, he and his new staff started recruiting McCaskill.
It was a surprise.
“I didn’t even know what Louisiana-Lafayette was,” McCaskill said. “I didn’t know what a Ragin’ Cajun was.”
Shoot, McCaskill can’t stand seafood. Crawfish? Forget about it.
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But he did know, and like, offers and opportunity.
McCaskill arrived in Lafayette on a Saturday night, sometime roughly around the start of the semester in January 2018.
At that point, he still wasn’t sure what his future held. But, recalling his father’s words, he was willing to take a chance.
“I had to make a decision by Monday morning,” McCaskill said.
“So I kind of got to see a little bit of the facility, and Lafayette, Sunday morning. I didn’t know any of the players. I just felt like it was something that it was meant for me to be down here, so I’m like, ‘I’m not driving back.’”
The clothes in his car would have to suffice for the rest of the semester.
What made McCaskill decide to stay? The answer is Napier and his staff.
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“Out of all the recruitments, out of all the scholarship offers I had — you know, I had over 20-some offers — I’ve never had a recruiting staff recruit me like they did,” McCaskill said. “You know, it just felt I was supposed to be here.”
Earlier in his recruiting, head coaches came and went. Staffs came and went. Offers came and went.
Michigan State’s came right before Signing Day in ’17, so that didn’t pan out in the end. Schools from the MAC, including Ball State, made offers, but none ever seemed like the right fit. Minnesota was in the picture at one point late.
Cincinnati was on him for a long time, even after a coaching change, but McCaskill later said the Bearcats told him he wasn’t academically eligible — even though he says he was.
That’s why he decided, despite being highly sought out of the Detroit area’s Southfield A&T, to go to Holmes and regroup.
But everything changed after he went to the juco.
The same schools before weren’t all on him anymore.
Ole Miss did indeed offer, but NCAA rules violations-related probation, according to McCaskill, turned him off from the Rebels.
Other options were drying up.
Enter the Sun Belt Conference's Cajuns.
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Napier and his assistants persistently stayed on McCaskill with daily calls, and the new UL coach wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Once he figured out what a Cajun was, McCaskill warmed to the idea of becoming one.
“I just wanted to be a part of a program,” McCaskill said, “so I just stayed down here.
“Coach Napier gave me a chance, and he’s continued to give me chances. I couldn’t ask for a better coach.”
And even when McCaskill blew his first shot with the Cajuns, Napier offered another.
McCaskill, named to The Detroit News Dream Team after getting in on 141 total tackles during his 2016 senior season, played four games as a backup for UL last season.
He had a quarterback hurry in a season-opening win over Grambling, then missed UL’s next three games with an ankle injury, including losses at Mississippi State and Alabama.
McCaskill returned for an Oct. 13 win over New Mexico State, and finished with a team high-tying four tackles despite the ankle still not being quite right.
He had six more tackles one week later in a loss at Appalachian State and, back home at Cajun Field, five tackles including a sack in a wild 47-43 win over Arkansas State.
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But McCaskill sat out a subsequent loss to Troy with a bone bruise in the ankle, and on Nov. 10 — when UL beat Georgia State — a Cajuns spokesman said McCaskill had been dismissed from the team a few days earlier for violating undisclosed team rules.
Tweeted McCaskill the prior Wednesday: “I love y’all boyz no matter what.”
“I’m a huge supporter of Lorenzo McCaskill. I want the guy to have success. He knows that,” Napier said at the time. “But you’ve got to comply. You’ve got to do it our way.
“We’re going to do everything we can do to help him, you know? And I think our teammates are behind him, and our staff is behind him.”
UL said in a statement that it would “work to assist Lorenzo as he looks to continue his academic and athletic career at another institution.”
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McCaskill was crushed.
The last thing he wanted was to look for another school, pursue another landing spot outside of Detroit, find another place to play football.
“It was difficult. It was definitely difficult,” he said. “I never went through something like that.
“You know, the love I have for the game, and being away from it, and then also having the injury, it was hard.
“But it was something that I needed. And I learned from it,” McCaskill added. “You learn from your mistakes, and just keep moving forward and working hard.”
While he was separated from the team, McCaskill rehabbed his ankle and continued to lift weights.
Nearly four months later, having been reinstated by Napier at the start of the semester, he looks back at the experience in a manner not all in his situation would.
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“There were a lot of younger guys out of high school that looked up to me,” McCaskill said of making it to the NCAA FBS level, “and I knew I had to make a statement for them — that anybody could do it, anybody could make it out of there.”
And when trouble chased him to Lafayette?
McCaskill doesn’t say what he did wrong, but he knows whatever it was wasn’t right.
“It hurt me,” he said, “because it felt like it wasn’t just about me — it was about those guys back home, my team.
“So it meant the world for me to do everything I needed to get back on this team, be on the right path and show them that you can do it.”
During the trying times, McCaskill leaned on the Cajuns he'd come to know best.
One in particular: fellow inside linebacker Ferrod Gardner, who himself had been dismissed in 2017 but was reinstated after Napier arrived.
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“He was with me every time, every step of the way. He was a guy that was at my house every single day,” McCaskill said. “He understood me. And I continue to keep learning from him. I look up to him. That’s like my brother.
“And I still had my teammates. I still had a group of guys — mostly the whole team — that was still by my side the whole time. I still felt a part of the team.”
'I NEEDED TO BE OFF THE TEAM'
If he had a do-over, McCaskill knows what he’d do differently.
He said he’d “come in with a different mentality — that I can trust people, and that I can control different things.”
Now that he’s back, McCaskill has spent the offseason trying to strengthen his mended ankle while making amends with those he disappointed.
What it will take?
“It’s time,” he said. “Time, and me just showing them that I’ve learned, and that I’m gonna work hard and I’m gonna be their brother no matter what.
“Now,” McCaskill added, “it’s just having those guys trust me again, working my way back up with my teammates and trying to work my back up in the depth chart.”
With Gardner and starting Mike linebacker Jacques Boudreaux both back, but senior Justin Middleton done, McCaskill is among those vying this spring for time at the both the Mike and Will inside linebacker spots.
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He has competition, including that from fellow underclassmen Kris Moncrief, Jordon Cordova and Jourdon Quibodeaux as the Cajuns prepare for their April 13 spring finale.
“You’ve got to remember that Lorenzo’s a relatively inexperienced guy, you know?” Napier said. “I mean, he only played in four games last year.
“We’re still Year 2 in the system, and for those rookies, especially the guys that did not have a significant background, didn’t have verbiage or a system or a language they could translate it into … he’s still young as a player.”
But the 6-foot McCaskill is up to around 230 pounds now, a jump of about 25 from a little more than a year ago.
“He’s a straight-line, fast guy that’s physical,” Napier said. “He’s tough. He’s proved to be a good cover guy.
“But I think, like a lot of players on our team, it’s more about developing confidence and having a thorough understanding of our system, what the offense is trying to do so you can anticipate (and) play fast and … eliminate mental errors, play with better effort, play with better technique, be a better teammate, all those things.
“So, he’s no different than a lot of guys on our team,” Napier added. “He’s got a lot of things to work on, but he’s working really hard and had a great attitude so far.”
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Because he played only four games last season, the year did not count against him.
McCaskill has three seasons of eligibility remaining with the Cajuns and vows the make the most of his second chance.
“I don’t want to let people around me down anymore,” he said. “I think I had a selfish mentality — that it was just about me — and once I started learning my mistakes affect more than just me, I don’t want to do that anymore.
“You know, football doesn’t last forever. But while I have it I don’t want to lose it.”
With each passing day, Lafayette feels more and more like a new home for McCaskill.
He hasn't forgotten the good things about Detroit, but the bad has been left behind.
And while he may never come to enjoy the jambalaya or gumbo if it has critters from the sea in it, may never the suck the head off a mudbug, he likes the weather, the people and the possibilities at his feet.
To enjoy them all, though, McCaskill said he knows “everything has to be right.”
“Can’t make those same mistakes. You’re gonna make mistakes, but if you’re not learning from them, then there’s no point, you know?” he said. “And I feel l like this mistake (the one before getting reinstated) is going to make me the player and person I needed to be.
“I needed this. I needed to be off the team. I needed to feel that, so I won’t make these mistakes when I get older.
“That’s the best thing Coach Napier has done for me. You know, I didn’t get it at first, but I get it now,” McCaskill added. “It’s made me a better person. Made me work harder. And it makes me think that things can be gone in a second.”
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