It’s almost clear now that the events of Gene McCaskill’s life in the past 10 years have funneled him toward a career in coaching.
There’s the knee injury to former Chester High School teammate C.C. Whitlock when the pair were sophomores that forced McCaskill to take over at quarterback and learn offensive schemes from a different perspective.
There’s the success the Cyclones experienced under spread offense-loving disciplinarian coach Victor Floyd.
There’s the four years at the University of Kentucky that taught McCaskill high-level college football scheming under head coaches Rich Brooks and Joker Phillips.
And of course there is the scar that pops off McCaskill’s left knee that looks kind of like the stitches on a football, a remnant of the injuries that nipped any potential NFL career before it was born, but also toughened the former Cyclone’s resolve.
All of these experiences led McCaskill to the position he now holds as receivers coach and offensive play-caller for Lewisville High School. Friday night he’ll help lead the Lions against his alma mater, Chester.
“I never imagined that, especially not in high school,” he said with a grin on Tuesday.
Floyd said McCaskill entered the Chester program as a 5-foot-6, 120-pound freshman who thought he was a running back.
“Even though he was only 5’6, he was kind of gangly. You could tell he was gonna grow some.”
McCaskill was one of a dozen or so freshman who took their lumps on a lowly Chester team that went 2-9 in Floyd’s first season at the school.
The coach called that class of ninth graders the “foundation of the program,” one that within five years played in back-to-back state championships. McCaskill, who also excelled at basketball and track and field, switched to receiver during his sophomore year, but after Whitlock went down with a knee injury in the season’s third game against Great Falls, McCaskill found himself under center.
“It kind of started from there,” said Floyd, “and the rest of their careers they flipped back and forth.”
Behind McCaskill and Whitlock, and a number of other college football-worthy talents like Fred Lee, Tony McNeil, Troy Sanders and Terrell Springs, the Cyclones steadily climbed, winning six games the second year, seven the third and eventually 12 in the fourth season. That year, they fell to Wilson 14-12 in the 2007 Class AAA state final after McCaskill’s potentially game-tying two-point conversion was stopped just short.
McCaskill’s career at Kentucky was stunted by injury. A promise-filled freshman season culminated with a three-catch, 64-yard performance in the 2008 Liberty Bowl against East Carolina.
But McCaskill blew out his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) blocking on a running play during his sophomore season. He clawed through the rehab and was running again within four months, but ruptured his meniscus during that first run, sidelining him for another spell.
“That was pretty tough,” McCaskill said. “I had to go right back into surgery, like two days later.”
He still was able to return in time to play in the Wildcats’ 2011 season opener against Western Kentucky but with no meniscus remaining, his weakened knee dashed any potential NFL career.
“It was a hard road, playing 16 weeks straight in the SEC,” he said while sitting in the Lewisville weight room. “It was a tough road going through that after that injury, but it made me stronger, and it made me not take for granted walking, and just the little stuff.”
The rash of injuries also sharpened McCaskill’s focus in school. Realizing that the NFL was an ever-fading dream, he buckled down in the classroom ensuring that he graduated from UK in four years with a degree in family science.
“No NFL teams want bad knees,” McCaskill said. “Once you get that in your head, I went in and got my degree.”
McCaskill could have returned to Kentucky to be a graduate assistant but his mother suffered a temporary illness that prompted a return home. A quick call from Mitchell, who was Chester’s defensive coordinator under Floyd, and McCaskill was donning blue and gold gear and coaching Lewisville receivers.
Floyd said he never viewed McCaskill as the coaching-type when he was a player, but saw that side of him when McCaskill worked in Floyd’s quarterbacks/receivers camp down in Brunswick, Ga., earlier this summer.
“I actually tried to hire him here, but I did not have a spot for him,” Floyd said.
That was the problem for several other coaches, but not Mitchell. He was able to hire McCaskill as a behavioral monitor helping teachers deal with discipline problems, while also keeping tabs on the football team’s behavior and attendance. McCaskill’s life experience makes him a natural role model for the Lewisville kids, especially since he’s from Chester County.
“It’s huge because it’s gonna have an impact on the young people he’s working with,” Floyd said. “It’s different when you’ve actually walked in the same shoes that they will walk in. I think that speaks volumes, because it gives those young people hope. He’s a guy that came from the same roots they’re coming from and he was able to do it.”
Being a young, successful athlete, McCaskill has unique sway with the young Lions.
“I can sit here and talk about turning away from the streets and making good decisions all I want to,” Mitchell said, “but right here is somebody they’ve heard about since they were little, and somebody who’s been through it. They can relate a little more, there’s no question.”
View from up top
McCaskill brings savvy to the Lions’ coaching staff, especially his offensive knowledge.
“He’s gonna be significantly ahead of the curve,” said Floyd. “Having played quarterback in high school, played a little wildcat quarterback at Kentucky, having been in a pro-style, spread offense for four years and playing under some great minds, he’s gonna be way ahead of the curve.”
That’s why within weeks of hiring McCaskill, Mitchell handed the former Cyclone a headset and sent him to the top of the pressbox to call plays for the Lions. It may not have been his NFL “view from the top,” but McCaskill has embraced the role, especially with an offense that slings the pigskin around a bit.
“I know there’s athletes around here, but we never really see a 1A coach that tries to spread the field and throw it around,” McCaskill said.
“Kids always like to throw and catch that thing. It’s easier to get them to practice that than dive option in the summer,” Mitchell said with a laugh. “We’ve always said we’re a power team in spread clothing. But the fact of the matter is if you can throw and catch it in 1A, you can separate yourself from some people. We’ve got some kids that can do that.”
During practice McCaskill’s extensive knowledge of receiving’s finer points is already making an impression.
“It’s good to have some of the guys come back and help us out with the little things,” Lewisville senior receiver Christian Cok said. “The little things that you don’t just learn on your own, that they’ve learned at the upper levels.”
Senior receiver Tony Gaston has already seen the benefits of working with McCaskill. He caught six passes for 60 yards last week against Great Falls, including a 22-yard touchdown. Gaston said it’s a pleasure to work with the rookie coach.
“He knows what it takes to get to the next level. I’m trying to do what he did.”
Stance and starts, breaking hands off the line in man-to-man coverage, tucking the ball after the catch, these are some of the minutiae that Cok referred to, that can’t be picked up while thumbing through a “Football for Dummies” book.
Friday night, McCaskill will be back up top, headset strapped on. Standing perched high above the Lions as they square off with Chester, the former Cyclone will be able to consider how far he has come since he was marauding around the very same field.
No doubt there will be a number of familiar smiling faces ready to greet McCaskill win or lose, though his family may not be among them.
“They’re still Chester fans,” McCaskill said.
His older brother, former South Carolina Gamecock Chris White, coaches Chester’s offensive line, while McCaskill’s old running mate, Whitlock, also has been helping out the Cyclones this season.
“It’s gonna be a big thing. It’s gonna be a packed house, and just to be going against that red and blue,” McCaskill said. But, he added, “they’re gonna be my family afterward.”
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T