Blake Cashman has a quote on his Twitter page that says, “Don’t tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon.”
It’s an old country music lyric that Cashman found when researching NBA star Paul George. The words resonate for Cashman, a sophomore from Eden Prairie who just went from obscure walk-on to Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.
“I feel like I’m someone who always grinds through tough times and understands that hard work pays off,” Cashman said.
If he needed a reminder, he got it last month from Ryan Connelly, another walk-on linebacker from Eden Prairie who earned his own Big Ten Player of the Week honor for Wisconsin.
On Saturday, these two dreamers will be at Camp Randall Stadium, battling for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. The Gophers are 15-point underdogs who’ve lost a dozen straight games to Wisconsin and haven’t won in Madison since 1994, two years before Cashman was born.
But go ahead and try telling him this one’s impossible.
“He’s a man possessed,” Gophers senior Jack Lynn said.
Cashman and Connelly took unusual paths to their stations in this rivalry, but history shows this has all happened before. Walk-ons have fingerprints all over the Axe.
Joel Stave, Alex Erickson and Joe Schobert — three senior co-captains on last year’s Wisconsin team — all started out as walk-ons.
So did Rhys Lloyd, whose last-second field goal gave Minnesota the Axe in 2003. And so did Aaron Osterman, who had seven catches for 82 yards and a touchdown when the 2-5 Gophers stunned Camp Randall in 1994.
Now the Gophers can win a share of the Big Ten West title and spoil Wisconsin’s hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff. Connelly has looked forward to this clash for months.
“The fact that they didn’t want me, and we won three state championships right under their nose, kind of lights a fire,” he said.
Connelly finds a home
Eden Prairie coach Mike Grant still chuckles at how things unfolded for Connelly in high school.
Connelly was Eden Prairie’s backup quarterback as a junior. One day, with the Eagles struggling to generate a pass rush, Grant asked an assistant to try “Connor” at defensive end. He meant Connor Johnson, but the assistant thought he heard “Connelly.”
Once practice started, Grant realized Connelly wasn’t at quarterback; the studious player was working with the defensive ends. Grant told his assistant there’d been a mistake.
“It was five minutes into practice,” Grant said, “and the coach goes, ‘Well, he’s the best one we’ve got right now.’ ”
Connelly helped win that year’s state championship on defense, then switched back to quarterback as a senior, steering the Eagles to another title.
“He’s definitely a guy that I looked up to,” Cashman said. “He was our leader and set the standard for hard work and what it takes to be the best you can be.”
Connelly still had no Division I recruiting offers. He’d been in touch with Wisconsin, knowing his parents had met there. But nothing materialized until former Badgers assistant Ben Strickland came to visit Eden Prairie lineman Robert Olson.
Strickland had taken over as Wisconsin’s primary recruiter in Minnesota after etching his own place in the rivalry’s history. He’s the one who recovered Justin Kucek’s blocked punt in the end zone, giving Wisconsin a 2005 win that still haunts Gophers fans.
On Strickland’s trip to see Olson, he called Connelly and said, “I’m in the neighborhood; mind if I stop by?”
Olson went to Oregon State, but Strickland landed Connelly as a preferred walk-on. The 6-3 Connelly has added about 30 pounds. He started off on special teams and got more defensive reps when Hill-Murray grad Jack Cichy suffered a season-ending pectoral injury. Cichy is another former walk-on who earned Big Ten honors after a 15-tackle frenzy Oct. 15 against Ohio State.
The next week, Connelly stepped in and made 11 tackles against Nebraska, earning his Big Ten award.
“Everything he’s gone through, I’m going through,” Cashman said. “He worked his butt off and ended up earning a spot on special teams and then earned a scholarship. He’s definitely an inspiration.”
After teaming with Connelly as a junior, Cashman had a monster senior year, helping Eden Prairie win its fourth consecutive state championship. He spent most of that season at cornerback before switching to linebacker.
As Cashman tells it, the Gophers coaches came to Eden Prairie to recruit JD Spielman, who’s now at Nebraska. They offered Cashman a preferred walk-on spot, and with no Division I scholarship offers, he jumped at it.
Last year, as a true freshman, Cashman showed off his relentless motor on special teams. At former coach Jerry Kill’s suggestion, he converted from safety to linebacker this spring, adding about 15 pounds to his 6-2, 225-pound frame.
“He’s kind of the same as Connelly; he’s a football player,” Grant said. “I think if they left him at safety, he’d start there. I think he’d start at strong safety, free safety, corner or linebacker. It doesn’t matter how big they are, they’ve just got to make plays.”
Cody Poock’s shoulder injury and the team’s various targeting penalties have opened more defensive playing time for Cashman. Used primarily on passing downs, he’s been a blitzing force, racking up six sacks, one fewer than team leader Steven Richardson.
Cashman had nine solo tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble last week against Northwestern. Eventually, he hopes to become an every-down linebacker.
“There’s no physical metric that says that he can’t,” defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel said. “He’s not too short, he’s not slow. He can really run.”
Even if someone set limits, Cashman would probably ignore them. Mention the Gophers’ epic drought in this Wisconsin rivalry, and he’d say, “We’re due.” Or he’d cite that old Paul Brandt song about footprints on the moon.
Cashman will keep reaching high. As his Twitter page says, “I’ll let you know when I land.”