Blake Cashman shook the entire time he was on the phone.
The call from an unknown number early Saturday afternoon turned out to be New York Jets General Manager Mike Maccagnan informing the linebacker that he was about to go from Gophers walk-on to NFL draft pick.
Two selections later, that came to fruition: Cashman went in the fifth round, 157th overall. The Eden Prairie native, who is coming off a team-high 104 tackles in 12 games as a senior, is the first Gophers player taken in the draft since 2017 and just the second in the past three years.
“I can’t really explain the feeling,” Cashman said, “of just taking the right next step and making my dream come true.”
Cashman was one of three Big Ten players with local ties who were drafted on Saturday. Another local, Trey Pipkins (Apple Valley/Sioux Falls) was drafted on Friday. More players could work out deals as undrafted free agents in the coming days.
Cashman said he had been sitting and watching the draft, becoming more stressed, anxious and excited as the rounds passed. Projections placed him somewhere around rounds three through six as a potential backup or special teams contributor after his standout NFL combine performance ranked him toward the top of his position group.
The 6-1, 237-pound linebacker first met with the Jets at the combine before interacting with the team’s scouts at the Gophers pro day as well as during biweekly check-ins throughout the past few months.
“I really like the kind of style of defense they play, and I know their special teams coordinator has some big plans for me given that I have a lot of good film on special teams,” Cashman said. “So now after this draft process is over, it’s going to be fun to finally get back to football and get back on the practice field and get to work.”
That all begins in two weeks, when Cashman said he will make his first-ever trip to New York for rookie minicamp before joining the full team for OTAs.
“It’s a marathon at that point,” Cashman said. “Get ready for this season and hopefully win a Super Bowl.”
Clearly, Cashman has his focus on the future. And that includes predicting the Gophers will have draft picks every year, now that coach P.J. Fleck is established at the helm.
“I’m somebody that really believes that Minnesota players have been overlooked in the recent years, and maybe that’s just because of our record recently,” he said. “But I think Minnesota has drawn a lot of great talent. I think having guys in the NFL puts Minnesota on the map.”
Titans draft Hooker
The Tennessee Titans traded up five spots with the Jets in the fourth round to select former Park Center standout Amani Hooker 116th overall. The Big Ten’s Tatum-Woodson Award winner, who played at Iowa, can play as a safety or big nickel corner at 6 feet, 200 pounds.
“[The Titans] are getting a playmaker, a baller, a student of the game and a guy you don’t have to worry about off the field,” Hooker said via the Titans’ team website. “I am going to come into work every day, no complaining. It’s a business now and I am ready to take it on and win some championships and some Super Bowls.”
Last year, Hooker shared the team lead in interceptions (four) and passes defensed (seven).
Giants take Connelly
Ryan Connelly, the Wisconsin inside linebacker who helped Eden Prairie to three Minnesota state football titles, was taken by the Giants in the fifth round (143rd overall).
The 6-2, 242-pounder walked on with the Badgers. Four years later, after starting 26 of 52 games, he’s on his way to New York.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Connelly told the Giants media. “It’s pretty crazy. It doesn’t seem real to me yet.”
The day before he was drafted, Connelly’s mother, Christi, underwent her final round of chemotherapy for lung cancer that was diagnosed last fall. She’ll have another checkup next Friday.
“Friday will be the big day,” Connelly said. “Hopefully she’ll get the check for all clear.”