UK receiver Gene McCaskill seems set for big season

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 28, 2012 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

There have been many times when Gene McCaskill has pondered waving the white flag.

"There were plenty of days I wanted to quit," Kentucky's fifth-year wide receiver confessed.

Three surgeries on his left knee, coupled with the anguish of not knowing if he'd ever get back to being 100 percent again, took their toll on McCaskill.

"It was really frustrating," he said. "You have your days where you're really down, where you're like, 'Man, I don't know if I can do this anymore.' "

There are days (every other day, in fact) when McCaskill's teammates get to take the field and practice together and he has to sit out to rest the surgically repaired knee.

McCaskill could sulk, pout and isolate himself, but he wanted to get back on the field. "I've never quit anything," he said.

So the senior spends time with strength and conditioning coach Rock Oliver.

"I've been in the weight room a lot on my off days and he's just been pushing me and pushing me, telling me how much the team needs me," McCaskill said. "So I've been going hard on my off days."

He's convinced all of that work is going to pay off, that this is going to be the season that he shows why coaches expected him to be one of a great receiving trio with Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews in 2010.

The coaches are convinced this could be his season, too.

They've named him one of three senior starters at the wide receiver position against Louisville on Sunday, along with La'Rod King and E.J. Fields.

"Those three guys have done a really good job and deserve to be the guys that run out there first," Coach Joker Phillips said.

Before the torn anterior ligament that has basically cost him two healthy years of football, the 6-foot, 197-pound receiver from Chester, S.C., looked like the next big thing.

As a freshman in 2008, he had a breakout game in the Liberty Bowl (three catches, 64 yards). He had started the last four games of the season. As a sophomore, he had 17 catches for 163 yards and contributed soundly.

Then his knee buckled in a pre-season scrimmage. He missed the 2010 season and was redshirted.

"When I got hurt, everything started going down the drain," McCaskill said. "But you have to stay strong and relax and come back and do what you have to do."

Last season, he was still struggling, mostly mentally, with the effects of reconstructive surgery and two subsequent arthroscopic surgeries. He caught nine passes for 85 yards, including his first career touchdown in the victory over Mississippi.

This season, McCaskill and his coaches believe he's back to full strength for the first time since his sophomore season.

He still sits out practice every other day, but it hasn't affected his abilities, UK's coaches said.

"He doesn't get a lot of reps, but he doesn't need a lot of reps," Phillips said. "He'll practice on Tuesday and Thursday, take off on Wednesday, then he'll go play the game. I think that's about all the practice he needs."

Even with the limited practice time, wide receivers coach Pat Washington sees McCaskill becoming a potential playmaker for UK this season.

"He's a guy who can get in and out of his cuts, catch the ball well," Washington said. "He understands where he needs to be and how to get there. His experience really puts him in that position."

McCaskill's experience also has put him in position to be a great teacher for a group of young, talented receivers, such as sophomore Demarco Robinson and freshmen Daryl Collins, A.J. Legree and DeMarcus Sweat.

"Me, E.J. and La'Rod being veterans, we're just out there making sure we're doing everything right and making sure we can help them do everything right," McCaskill said. "We have to be leaders."

He's already taught them one important lesson: not to quit.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com

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