Blake Cashman didn’t look injured. He looked like a walk-on enjoying a meteoric rise.
After joining the Gophers out of Eden Prairie with little fanfare in 2015, Cashman repeatedly turned heads at linebacker last season, leading Minnesota with 7½ sacks.
He did that despite having a torn labrum in each shoulder.
“That’s something you can play through,” Cashman said with a shrug. “You’ve just got to work on little exercises to keep it stable throughout the season. It held in, and I did all right.”
He delivered three tackles for negative yardage against Purdue. He tormented Northwestern with 10 tackles, including two for a loss, with a forced fumble. Then came the Holiday Bowl; Washington State quarterback Luke Falk probably still sees Cashman’s No. 36 jersey speeding toward him in his sleep.
Cashman earned defensive MVP honors in that upset victory, with 12 tackles against Falk’s Cougars. Soon after hoisting that trophy, Cashman had surgeries to repair those torn cuffs of cartilage in each shoulder.
He missed spring practice, which has turned this month into another proving ground, as the 6-2, 230-pound Cashman looks to see where he’ll fit under new coach P.J. Fleck and defensive coordinator Robb Smith.
“He’s one of those guys who gives us a lot of flexibility,” Smith said. “He can play the linebacker position. He can walk up and play defensive end. He’s excellent in coverage. He runs really well and was a defensive back in high school.”
Fleck prefers to run a 4-3 defense (four down linemen, three linebackers), but the Gophers are much deeper at linebacker than defensive end. Last year’s defensive coordinator, Jay Sawvel, employed many four-linebacker sets last year, especially on third down, and that’s where Cashman thrived.
Smith, who appears to have similar plans, said Cashman’s skill set “allows us to do a lot of creative things with him in certain packages. I’m very excited to work with him.”
Cashman never lost a game at Eden Prairie High School, as the Eagles went undefeated and won state titles his junior and senior year. Though he wasn’t a prized recruit for the Gophers, he played 13 games as a true freshman, primarily on special teams.
Last year, he made just one start yet still racked up 45 tackles. Considering the impact he’s made in relatively limited snaps, he’d love the chance to become a full-time player.
“Oh absolutely,” he said. “Every player here wants to be on the field as much as they can. And I missed spring ball, so I’ve still got to prove myself to this staff, and I’m excited to do that.”
Fleck watched Cashman grind through his rehab, making sure he was back to full strength by the start of training camp.
“I tell you what, that kid busts his butt,” Fleck said.
Fleck awarded Cashman with a scholarship in April in a surprise ceremony that left teammates roaring their approval. A team-produced video from that moment showed Cashman thanking the team’s seniors for leading the way.
“This isn’t something that’s going to stop me from working hard,” Cashman added. “I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, and the end goal is a Big Ten championship — that’s what we’re working for.”