April 28, 2006
Syracuse, NY (CSTV U-WIRE) --
The first time Syracuse defensive line coach Tim Cross saw Ryan LaCasse, he had his doubts.
Shortly after Cross was hired in January 2005, he was walking into the P&C grocery store on Nottingham Road with head strength and conditioning coach Will Hicks when LaCasse passed them on the way out.
"Coach Hicks turned and said to me, 'There's one of your defensive ends. He runs this fast, and he's this strong,'" Cross said. "And I was just like, yeah OK. I thought (Hicks) was just trying to make him sound good."
LaCasse had shoulder-length hair and at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, he barely resembled the defensive linemen Cross was used to at Texas, his previous job. But a week later, when the Orange began morning workouts, Cross began to believe LaCasse's ability.
"I remember the first time I saw him run and I said, 'Maybe Hicks was right.' I thought he was just trying to make him sound good, but it turned out he was right."
LaCasse, who is expected to be a middle-round pick in tomorrow's NFL Draft, has turned plenty of people into believers throughout his short football career.
The fifth-year senior who graduated in December didn't earn a full-time starting role until last season, but he led the team with nine sacks and forced three fumbles. Many draft gurus consider the first team All-Big East selection a first-day pick after a strong performance at the NFL Combine in February. He recorded a 4.54-second 40-yard dash, the second fastest of any defensive lineman, and bench pressed 225 pounds 34 times.
Though LaCasse started playing football his freshman year of high school, those close to him aren't surprised he's now mentioned in the same breath as All-American defensive ends Mathias Kiwanuka and Tambi Hali.
"He was always working a little harder than everybody else," said Greg Burke, his coach at Stoughton High School in Massachusetts. "He had that little extra drive to be better, and he really pushed himself. It made a lot of kids want to work out with him."
Indeed, LaCasse's anonymity at the start of the 2005 season was nothing compared to his high school days when he'd barely stepped onto the gridiron.
He was always tall for his age and could never play Pop Warner football in Stoughton because he was too heavy. Instead, he played basketball and baseball and later became a Massachusetts State 100-meter dash champion.
LaCasse said a bunch of his friends were trying out for the freshman football team at Stoughton, and they convinced him to try it.
"They told me I was playing tight end when I was a freshman and I didn't know what that was," he said. "I started learning a little bit here and there and when I got to college, I learned more. I've learned a ridiculous amount in the past five years."
As his mother Dotty O'Donnell said, "He's always been self-disciplined and a hard worker. It was just a fluke he did football."
LaCasse, who was raised in a single-parent home, realized the difficulties his mother endured while growing up. As a kindergarten teacher, she struggled to put LaCasse's sister Nicole through college (LaCasse said he hasn't spoken with his father in 15 years).
When LaCasse began playing tailback and defensive end on the varsity team as a sophomore, he told his mother not to worry. She would never have to pay college tuition for him because he would earn a scholarship to a Division I college.
That's when LaCasse's work ethic kicked in. Burke said he was always the first one in the weight room and the last one out. By senior year, he could bench press 400 pounds - pretty good for a lineman, outstanding for a tailback who could run a 4.5-second 40-yard dash. High school teammate Matt King said despite LaCasse's bulk, he could still dunk a basketball.
"When we were in high school, he would race the defensive backs and the safeties, and he would beat them all the time," King said. "At track practice, no one could ever beat him in the 100-meter dash. It was funny seeing a big white guy always winning."
On offense if LaCasse made it outside the tackles, the opposing team was lucky to get a hand on him. Still, it would take at least two guys to bring him down. He finished his senior season with 1,407 yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground.
That dominance gave Burke visions of Mike Alstott and the power-I at the college level. He talked to former SU head coach Paul Pasqualoni about using LaCasse as a running back, but Pasqualoni was never interested.
Instead, LaCasse redshirted his first year at Syracuse and spent his time practicing as a defensive end. It was a change for him sitting on the bench, but he was able to learn from NFL All-Pro Dwight Freeney, a senior at SU in 2001.
LaCasse filled in for injured upperclassmen the next season and started four games. But during his sophomore and junior seasons, he was mainly a backup.
So when SU head coach Greg Robinson arrived at Syracuse in January 2005, he believed senior James Wyche, who'd started at defensive end since he was a freshman, was easily the better of the two.
"As spring ball went on, I began to see some of Ryan's abilities," Robinson said. "Not to take anything away from James - he's a very good football player - but when we got into our three-man schemes, we decided to go with (LaCasse) as one of the guys off the ball. That's when we really began to develop his game."
Robinson, a defensive mastermind, brought out the best in LaCasse. He used his quickness and athleticism as a linebacker and showcased LaCasse's speed as a third-down pass rusher.
It's this type of versatility Robinson thinks will make him successful at the next level.
"He doesn't always have to have his hand on the ground to be an effective football player," Robinson said. "He has a definite value, and it's just a matter of utilizing him and taking advantage of his skills."
Since the combine, LaCasse visited the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Indianapolis Colts facilities, but he is hopeful to get picked by his hometown team, the New England Patriots, who employ a 3-4 defense.
"From what I've heard, a lot of 3-4 teams are tight-lipped," LaCasse said. "They don't speak about draft status. A lot of guys have told me it's the last place you'll expect (that will draft you)."
Wherever he goes, LaCasse said he is eager to start the next segment in his football career. Linebacker or defensive end, he's ready to work and ready to prove to everyone he can play in the NFL.
People in Stoughton have been talking recently about LaCasse, who will likely be the first townie to get drafted since 1988, after a story about him appeared in The Boston Globe last week.
O'Donnell said many parents at her grade school have been congratulating her for raising a successful son and that they've made their boys read the article to show them how far they can go if they work hard.
Burke said he saw LaCasse working out in the Stoughton High School weight room this week and running sprints on the track like he did before coming to Syracuse. He talked to current football players preparing for next season and spoke with a reporter from the student newspaper.
Said Burke: "He hasn't had the easiest time. He's kept very level-headed about his success, and I know he's gonna make it."
(C) 2006 Daily Orange via CSTV U-WIRE