The intersection of need and versatility worked out well for Mike Grant.
In the fall of 2014, the Eden Prairie football coach felt he needed more plays at linebacker, so he moved a do-it-all cornerback, Blake Cashman, to the middle. The result: Cashman helped the Eagles win their fourth consecutive big-school state championship.
“He played great,’’ Grant said. “Made big plays.’’
Four years later, it’s the Gophers who are benefiting from Cashman’s big plays. The senior linebacker leads Minnesota with 68 tackles (sixth in the Big Ten) and has 11.5 tackles for loss (tied for third in the conference). And he’s coming off a game in which he made 10 tackles that included a key third-down stop in the Gophers’ 38-31 victory over Indiana on Friday night.
“I felt like it was one of his best games,’’ Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “But when you look at how much better he can still get, he’s still growing every week. He’s gotten so much better from Game 1 to now.’’
People are noticing. On Wednesday, Cashman was one of 69 players nominated for the Burlsworth Award, given to the most outstanding player who began his career as a walk-on. In addition, Pro Football Focus’ college evaluators have the 6-2, 235-pounder as their top-graded linebacker in the Big Ten this season.
The accolades are nice, but Cashman is looking at the big picture that includes Saturday’s game at Illinois.
“I haven’t paid too much attention to it because I like to be humble and remain focused on what’s important,’’ he said, “and that’s playing at a consistent high level, playing for my teammates and winning games for this football team.’’
Cashman played a big part in the Gophers winning the Indiana game. After the Hoosiers erased a 31-9 deficit to tie the score 31-31, they got the ball back at their 24-yard line with 3:25 left in the fourth quarter. Consecutive runs of 7 and 2 yards by Stevie Scott left Indiana with third-and-1.
“I figured they were either going to run the ball or throw a short pass,’’ Cashman said. The Hoosiers went with a run by Scott, and Cashman shot the gap between the left guard and tackle to nail the 236-pound back for a 2-yard loss.
The Gophers got the ball on the ensuing punt, and quarterback Tanner Morgan hit receiver Rashod Bateman for a 67-yard touchdown pass with 1:34 left.
“That’s the play of the game,’’ Fleck said of Cashman’s tackle, pointing to the possibility of Indiana driving for a winning field goal or TD if Scott gained the first down.
Added Gophers rush end Carter Coughlin:
“That was one of those plays that just fires everybody up. We talk about playmakers need to make plays, and he made a huge play.’’
Indiana got the ball one last time, and it was Coughlin — Cashman’s Eden Prairie teammate — making a big play with a strip sack of Hoosiers quarterback Peyton Ramsey.
“I was telling him right as we took the field, ‘Give me one, Carter. Give me one. I need one,’ ’’ Cashman said. “… It took me back to my high school days with us making plays out there.’’
Grant remembers those days well, when he saw Cashman’s football IQ blossom.
“I always say this: There are people with fast-twitch muscles, and then there are people with fast-twitch minds,’’ he said. “Blake’s got that mind where he sees something and reacts very quickly.’’
Cashman wasn’t just a football player in high school. He also was a standout basketball player, so much so that he considered attending the University of St. Thomas to play both sports.
“When the Gophers came around, I knew I had to take that opportunity and see what I can make of it,’’ said Cashman, who joined Minnesota as a preferred walk-on safety and received a scholarship in the spring of 2017.
Both Fleck and Grant say Cashman can make it to the next level.
“He’s not your prototypical really tall, rangy linebacker, but that guy’s going to play in the NFL if he stays healthy,’’ Fleck said.
“I think he can play in the NFL for a long time, especially on special teams and as a ’backer on certain [coverage] packages.’’
Added Grant, “Right now, he’s just a specimen, and he’s the type of guy you can see making it in the NFL.
“He’s got great instincts and a great mind for the game.’’