Sam McCaskill never feared facing 300-pound offensive linemen every week, because by the time he was 10, he already played with fire.
Well before he became one of Boise State’s most respected defensive players, McCaskill excelled in something completely different:
Growing up in Eugene, Ore., he was part of the juggling team at Corridor Elementary, a school with a focus on performing arts.
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“We’d perform at halftime of Oregon basketball games, do shows at retirement homes, and we got pretty good, able to do torches, things like that,” McCaskill said.
When he transferred to the school in third grade, McCaskill became close with another student, Sean Bellotti. Bellotti’s father, Mike, was the head football coach at Oregon. As the pair got to know one another, so did the families, and McCaskill said he considers Bellotti, now an ESPN broadcaster and analyst, to be “a great mentor.”
“On one of the first days, they competed to see who could juggle the longest, and it came down to Sean and Sam, who was about twice as big as everyone else, but he was still pretty nimble,” Bellotti said. “They thought it was a good way to teach kids discipline.”
As they entered middle school, Bellotti and McCaskill began focusing their attention on other activities, though Boise State senior linebacker Ben Weaver said McCaskill still has juggling torches at their house.
McCaskill played basketball a bit, but “he had more fouls than points,” Bellotti said.
Always bigger and stronger than most kids, football became McCaskill’s calling, and Bellotti, who won 116 games in 14 seasons at Oregon from 1995-2008, wanted to help.
“I suggested he go where he would be happy,” Bellotti said. “I knew Boise State had some interest and I called (former coach) Chris Petersen and told him he’s a can’t-miss kind of young man. If they didn’t take him, he’d be the sort where three years later you’d think, ‘Dang, we had a chance.’”
At Sheldon High in Eugene (where Sean punted and played receiver), McCaskill led the state in sacks his junior and senior seasons, with 12.5 and 16. He had Big Sky offers, and one from nearby Oregon State. He got a late offer from Boise State and visited the weekend before signing day, a week after he tripped to Corvallis.
“Oregon State was familiar to me,” McCaskill said. “I liked the idea of getting out, doing something different. I just felt at home at Boise State, and I haven’t looked back.”
Other schools might be the ones now wishing they’d taken a chance, as the 6-foot-3, 259-pound senior defensive end is one of four team captains, having played in 40 games, logging six career sacks. He was asked to move to defensive tackle as a sophomore after Tyler Horn suffered a season-ending injury and wound up starting the final 13 games.
On Saturday, McCaskill will have about 50 friends and family members on hand when the Broncos play the Beavers.
“I’ve definitely had it circled for the last couple years,” he said.
McCaskill has done everything off the field necessary to put himself into position for a strong final season. He finished second behind center Mason Hampton in the team’s winter weightlifting competition, he’s earned academic All-Mountain West honors the last three seasons, and he led an inexperienced defensive line in summer player-run practices.
“A lot of guys look up to him. ... He answered the bell, he’s a great leader, his motor just doesn’t stop,” junior running back Jeremy McNichols said.
In the season opener Sept. 3 at Louisiana, McCaskill had two sacks, then blocked a field goal the following week against Washington State in a 31-28 win.
His three tackles for loss lead the team.
“I’m very much aware of what he’s doing. Makes me feel good because I stuck my neck out,” Bellotti said. “Those are effort-type plays. Most of the plays you win, it’s because you’re going until the whistle blows, and that’s just what Sam is all about.”
The willingness to try something new, effort and discipline — perhaps first developed from all that juggling — those have been McCaskill’s calling cards.
During last week’s bye, he and Weaver entered a business challenge in which they create a mock startup company, develop a plan to get it off the ground and pitch it to a board of “investors.”
Handling a few things simultaneously, yet keeping them moving, without losing focus?
“That’s Sam McCaskill,’’ Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “He happens to play football, but he’s a guy you’d want around in any capacity.’’
Boise State at Oregon State
- When: 1:30 p.m. MT Saturday
- Where: Reser Stadium (45,674, FieldTurf), Corvallis, Ore.
- TV: Fox Sports 1 (Tim Brando, Spencer Tillman, Bruce Feldman)
- Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
- Records: Boise State 2-0 (0-0 Mountain West); Oregon State 1-1 (0-0 Pac-12)
- Kickoff weather: Mid-60s and sunny, little to no chance of precipitation
- Vegas line: Boise State favored by 13 points
- Series: Oregon State leads 5-3 (last meeting: Beavers won 38-23 in 2013 Hawaii Bowl)