Chaz Anderson’s move from cornerback to wide receiver on the first day of fall camp got all the attention.
The less-noticed move — and the one paying huge dividends — was Sam McCaskill’s transition from defensive end to defensive tackle.
McCaskill, a redshirt sophomore, has started the past two games after the season-ending knee injury to Tyler Horn — a senior who made the same transition earlier in his career and has provided invaluable assistance to McCaskill.
“I’ve had a blast this year just getting to be on the field,” McCaskill said. “If that means playing three technique (tackle) to get me on the field, I’m 100 percent for it.”
McCaskill’s move was prompted by a shortage of tackles. Senior Justin Taimatuia was out at the beginning of camp — he’s now out for the year. That left Horn and junior Armand Nance as the only experienced tackles on the field.
McCaskill didn’t play much last year, but the little experience he gained still gave him an edge over the other tackle options.
“We needed some more size inside and maybe a little bit of experience,” McCaskill said. “The three technique, it’s a lot like defensive end. When we go into our three-man package, it’s basically exactly the same. I picked it up really quickly.”
McCaskill (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) is the lightest tackle on the roster, outside of the true freshmen, by 20 pounds. He survives inside with superior technique, the same way Horn (now 6-5, 273) made the transition.
McCaskill only has three tackles this season but his contribution is more visible in the Broncos’ stats against the run — 93 carries, 147 yards (1.6 yards per carry). Boise State ranks second in the nation against the run at 49.0 yards per game.
He’s trying to gain some weight but can only do so much during the season. On Saturday, he’ll face a Louisiana line that averages 311 pounds at the three interior positions.
“I know that’s been a big question mark,” McCaskill said of his weight. “We have a big game this Saturday to see if I’ll hold up. I think a lot of it is just technique and pad level. It’s just who wants it more.”
McCaskill came to Boise State from Sheldon High in Eugene, Ore., with visions of chasing quarterbacks. He led Oregon with 16 sacks as a high school senior and was an all-state defensive end and center.
He began his career as a stud end — the end/linebacker hybrid spot — and generated some buzz among the coaching staff last offseason. A fall camp injury derailed him. He moved to end, where he was stuck on the depth chart behind DeMarcus Lawrence and Beau Martin, and finished with seven tackles and one sack.
All the while, Horn joked with McCaskill that he was following in his footsteps. Horn also went from stud to end to tackle.
“He said, ‘Get ready. Your time is coming,’ ” McCaskill said. “I said, ‘I’ve never played that before.’ Sure enough, the time’s here. It’s been really fun.”
And Horn, who will return next season as a redshirt senior, has provided a support system.
“To get to watch film with him and just be around him, you learn so much,” McCaskill said. “You learn a lot about technique. He has a good relationship with guys like Shea (McClellin, of the Bears), getting to talk to him about different rush moves that have worked for him in the NFL.”
McCaskill left the Colorado State game briefly with a knee injury. He wore a large brace in the Connecticut game last week and coach Bryan Harsin said the training staff worked hard all week to get him on the field. But McCaskill downplayed the injury.
“I wasn’t going to sit out, that’s for sure,” he said. “It wasn’t a substantial injury. The game of football, sometimes you have to toughen up and play through some stuff. There are a lot of guys doing the same thing.”
McCaskill’s emergence has been critical on a defensive line that has featured some guys in new places and surprise successes through the first three games.
“Sam has stepped up a lot, stepped up big for us,” said redshirt freshman end Mat Boesen, who moved from linebacker. “ He's kind of surprised me how well he’s been playing in that position — he's really holding it down and playing well for us there.”
The role has lifted McCaskill, too — from the common doldrums of a player not contributing much on game day to the intense lifestyle of a starter.
“It’s been crazy,” he said. “It’s a whole different preparation coming into the week. You have to put in so much more work. Knowing you’re going to play, you’ve got to get your mind right. I love it. It really brought the love of football back into it for me. It’s been a tremendous journey so far.”
Boise State recorded eight sacks against Connecticut last week. Here’s where that ranks in school history (since 1985):
13, Montana, Nov. 5, 1994
9, Northern Arizona, Nov. 1, 1986
9, Weber State, Sept. 30, 1989
9, Oregon State, Sept. 23, 1989
9, Portland State, Sept. 7, 1996
8, BYU, Sept. 24, 2004
8, Connecticut, Sept. 13, 2014
7, Oregon State, Oct. 25, 1986
7, Delaware State, Sept. 5, 1987
7, Pacific, Sept. 19, 1992
7, Montana, Sept. 23, 1995
7, Nevada, Oct. 23, 1999
7, Hawaii, Oct. 17, 2008
7, Hawaii, Nov. 6, 2010
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