Blake Cashman burst on the scene as a sophomore in 2016, leading the Gophers with 7 ½ sacks and earning defensive MVP honors in the Holiday Bowl. Last year, however, he was a reserve linebacker backing up Jonathan Celestin and playing on special teams.

As he enters his senior season, Cashman, a former Eden Prairie standout, is ready for an expanded role.

“I’m expecting a big year,’’ Cashman said Tuesday during Gophers football media day. “This offseason I focused on getting stronger and faster during the spring. I got my weight up [to 235 pounds] and strength up. I’m hoping that will help me out, especially when we’re facing bigger, stronger teams.’’

Cashman was limited during spring practice because of a shoulder injury but is ready to compete for a starting job at weak-side linebacker. Senior Julian Huff is expected to be in the mix, too.

“My shoulder is all healed up,’’ Cashman said. “I’m very thrilled this season to see how it holds up and if I stay healthy.’’

A special teams ace the past three seasons, Cashman relished the role. “It’s how I earned my money, it’s how I got my playing time,’’ he said.

Safety dance

The Gophers have experience at safety with the return of Antoine Winfield Jr. from a hamstring injury and the presence of senior Jacob Huff. But after that, Fleck expects some true freshmen to play.

“The more freshman DBs who can play, the more creative we can be with Antoine Winfield Jr.,’’ Fleck said. “You might see a C.J. Smith play at safety. You might see Josh Aune as a true freshman. Benny Sapp [III] might get opportunities earlier.’’

Sapp missed most of his senior year at Eden Prairie because of a knee injury, and Fleck said he looks good but will be cautious with him. “It looks like he’s comfortable, like he’s playing full speed on it,’’ he said.

Three open practices

Three of the Gophers’ training camp practices will be open to the public: 3:30 p.m. Saturday at the Athletes Village outdoor fields; 4 p.m. Aug. 10 at TCF Bank Stadium as part of Family Day, which includes a diaper drive for charity; and 3:30 p.m. Aug. 16 at the Athletes Village outdoor fields.