Death in Detroit made UL's McCaskill seek a better path
Update: UL linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill did not make the trip to Ohio for UL's win Saturday over the Bobcats. However, he does remain on the Ragin' Cajuns roster. The original story ...
When UL visits Ohio of the MAC on Saturday, the Ragin’ Cajuns will be close enough to his hometown of Detroit that multiple members of linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill’s family will be able to make the trip and watch him.
For someone attending college far from his roots, that’s exciting.
If, that is, McCaskill makes the trip at all.
McCaskill lost his backup job at inside linebacker on the depth chart this week to Jordan Cordova, and on Wednesday night Cajuns coach Billy Napier indicated it remains to be seen if McCaskill will make the trip at all.
Napier did not disclose the reason for the uncertainty, and it's the latest twist in the saga of ups and downs for the Detroit native.
Had he not joined last year, which he did instead of perhaps joining Cincinnati, Michigan State, Ohio or one of the other many MAC programs that offered him a scholarship coming out of Detroit’s Southfield A&T, McCaskill never would be experiencing all that he is now.
There’s a reason McCaskill picked a place to play that is located more than 1,100 miles from where he was raised, and people like the beloved grandparents who had a heavy hand in his upbringing understand.
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“(Relatives) tell me every single day, ‘I wish you were closer,’” McCaskill said last week. “But it’s OK. Everything happens for a reason.”
McCaskill initially shared his well-chronicled story with The Daily Advertiser back in the spring.
“You know, I’ve seen a lot,” he said then.
“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.”
Over the past several days, McCaskill was reminded of that in the cruelest of ways — prompting him to again share a tale of trying circumstances and the pain he’s tried to leave behind.
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Last Saturday, the Ragin’ Cajuns beat Texas Southern of the SWAC 77-6.
Standing on the sideline opposite of UL’s at Cajun Field was Tigers receiver Donnie Corley, who played one season at Michigan State in 2016 before being arrested as part of a criminal sexual conduct case that also involved two teammates. According to the Lansing State Journal, the players later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of seduction.
Corley — who had six catches for 62 yards against the Cajuns — is from King High, another Detroit high school.
Not long ago, McCaskill was showing someone a group photo of Detroit-area high school players from his younger days.
“And out of the 10 people that were in that picture,” McCaskill said, “there’s only two of us that’s still around.
“There was me, and another kid — and the kid (is Corley).”
When McCaskill said “still around,” he did not just mean still playing football.
He meant "still alive."
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“Every single one of (the others),” McCaskill said, “things happened.
“We (he and Corley) are the only ones living right now. Yes sir. There’s eight of them that are not here.”
All the rest, according to McCaskill, were shooting victims, and that’s not easy for anyone to wrap their mind around.
“It’s just from the inner city,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand, you know? You either play sports, or you go to the other side.
“You’ve got to pick or choose one, and those guys — that’s what they chose. I’m used to it, which is hard to say. But you live and learn from it.”
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A TICKET OUT
Somewhere along the way McCaskill learned the best way for him to stay alive was to choose football.
It would be a ticket out, his passport to survival.
Initially, the itinerary guided him to Cincinnati. He signed in 2017 with the Bearcats of the American Athletic Conference. And when that didn’t work out, McCaskill went into to Holmes Community College in Mississippi.
From there, rather than join one of the MAC schools that originally offered, he landed at UL, where opportunity awaited.
The Cajuns needed help at inside linebacker, so — despite his relative inexperience — McCaskill played in four games early on last season.
But he hurt a foot, then got kicked off the team for reasons that never have been disclosed.
After the season, Napier decided to give McCaskill a second chance — and so far he’s made the most of it.
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Until this week, McCaskill had been playing as the backup to senior Ferrod Gardner at the Will linebacker spot, and through three games McCaskill has seven total tackles.
Though he played sparingly and didn’t have any tackles in the blowout win over Texas Southern, McCaskill did have five tackles including four solo stops in a win one outing earlier against Liberty.
Napier thought it was McCaskill’s best game as a Cajun, though McCaskill did not necessarily agree.
“Technique-wise and being everywhere I was supposed to be, I think he’s right,” McCaskill said. “(But) I feel like Arkansas State from last year was a little bit better game for me.”
McCaskill had five tackles including his first career sack in a key, late-October Sun Belt Conference win over the Red Wolves.
Either way, it’s progress from last season for a player Napier quickly suggests is younger than most realize.
He’s understanding nuances of the scheme better now and figuring out how to play in space so he can improve on pass coverage.
“He’s a guy who really, from a mental standpoint, the system is still relatively new to him,” the Cajuns coach said. “He’s no different than (others) that are young ’backers … trying to find their way.”
It’s a group that has more depth than last year, even with starter Justin Middleton having played his senior season in 2018.
Gardner is playing permanently on the inside, rather than on the outside too like last year. Acadiana High product Jourdon Quibodeaux, who came to UL as a walk-on, has emerged as a capable backup behind senior starter Jacques Boudreaux at the Mike, and sophomore reserve Cordova has moved his way up the depth chart.
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And McCaskill has settled in as someone who is counted on to constantly push the pack around him.
“Us as a linebacker room has elevated so high,” McCaskill said. “We’ve got two great senior linebackers. We’ve got another great linebacker, Quib. … Everybody in that room can play on the field.
“We go out there and match and see who can be the hardest-hitting, the loudest one, out there every single day — you know, who has the most intensity. It’s fun playing with those guys.”
'YOU JUST LEARN FROM IT'
It’s all about competition, for playing time and top performance.
But for someone who comes from an environment where the real competition was to see who could stay alive the longest, it’s also about opportunity.
A chance to stay away from trouble.
A chance to set out on a new path.
When he was suspended last year, McCaskill almost blew his best shot at both.
But now, thanks to that second chance, he’s back on track, doing what it takes — no matter how far from home he must be — to leave bad influences in the rearview mirror.
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“I think about those guys every single day,” McCaskill said of the kids in the photo, the ones who lost their lives on the mean streets.
“You really don’t (understand it). You just learn from it. I know I can be in that same predicament in a second. That’s why I don’t go home as much. My family doesn’t want me to go as home as much.
“Because I’ve been in spots where, I don’t know how I’m sitting here talking to you guys,” McCaskill added. “That was my reason in coming down here.”
So when McCaskill’s relatives make the less-than-300-mile trip from Detroit to Athens for the rare chance to watch him Saturday, that’s what he — and they — must remember. If, that is, they get to see him at all.
So it goes for someone who really is trying to find a way to make it all work even if that often has proven challenging.
“I’m not the first guy that has done it,” McCaskill said of trying to flee the trap. “But I don’t do it for me. I do it for the people around me.
“Seeing how happy a lot of people are back home that I’m playing football, that I’m doing what I’m doing — that’s who I do it for.
“My grandparents who raised me for a long period of time — they’re happy, I’m happy,” he added. “I put a smile on their face every single day, because my grandma is not worried about what I’m doing at nighttime.”
She knows what he’s doing instead.
“That’s my main goal,” McCaskill said, “was to make my grandfather and my grandmother happy, because she stresses a lot.”
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