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Blake Cashman’s football odyssey: From St. Thomas recruit to Gophers walk-on to NFL draft prospect

Minnesota linebacker Blake Cashman (36) celebrates his third down stop of Fresno State running back Jordan Mims (22) in the first quarter of an NCCA football game at TCF Stadium in Minneapolis on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Blake Cashman received sparse recruiting interests to play major college football coming out of Eden Prairie High School in 2015.

While North Dakota State, Minnesota Duluth and others were in the mix, Cashman was “very close” to attending St. Thomas to play football and basketball, another sport he loves and played for the Eagles.

“It was discouraging, and honestly, I lacked some confidence and doubted myself; that is why I was going to go to St. Thomas,” Cashman told the Pioneer Press last week. “That is where I knew I was safe and would be able to play (both sports), have a great college experience and a great sports career.”

But Cashman reflected on that near decision. “I’ve still always believed in myself enough to the point to where I’m going to go after my dreams,” he said.

Cashman was impressed by then-Gophers coach Jerry Kill and accepted a walk-on roster spot at Minnesota. He made an immediate splash on special teams his first year, in 2015.

Playing linebacker in 2016, he won Holiday Bowl defensive MVP and the program’s Gary Tinsley Award for underdog spirit. With P.J. Fleck taking over as head coach, Cashman earned a scholarship in 2017. Then, as a first-time starter last season, he made a team-high 104 tackles and was named all-Big Ten.

Cashman’s rise continued into the NFL scouting combine in March, and the 6-foot-1, 237-pound linebacker will write another chapter in his underdog story if he is selected in the middle to late stages of NFL draft this week.

After Thursday’s first round, draft pundits believe Cashman’s name could be called anywhere from the third round on Friday to its conclusive seventh round on Saturday.

Given the wide window in his draft status, Cashman is looking to keep any sort of draft party low key Friday and Saturday, with a possible bigger event on Sunday, once the anxiety and stress is settled and he knows more about his future.

At the combine, Cashman finished in the top five in four drills, including a 4.50-second time in the 40-yard dash. Franchises raced to meet with him, doing interviews with team reps, follow-up workouts and film sessions in some shape or form. Nearly every NFL team met with Cashman.

Draft analyst Dane Brugler of The Athletic said he encountered doubters when he placed Cashman among his top 10 linebackers before the combine.

“I received a lot of ‘who?’ comments,” Brugler said. “… I think he’s worthy of top 100 consideration, but if he doesn’t go there, (he’ll) go quickly in round four. He’s a really solid linebacker with all the ingredients to play special teams right away as a rookie.”

Pro Football Focus has Cashman as the fourth-best linebacker available and a potential second-round pick. Through the process, Cashman has gotten the most interest from the Titans, Redskins, Saints and Vikings.

But Cashman, who grew up a huge Kevin Garnett fan, doesn’t have the same affinity for his hometown pro football team. Unlike his family which is almost exclusively Vikings fans, Cashman “was a little rebellious.”

“I grew up as a Packers fan,” he said. “That started when I was five years old and was beginning to understand football a little bit. … I just loved the way that Brett Favre competes and how he treats his teammates and coaches.”

Instead of St. Thomas, where Cashman’s father Steve was a defensive back, punt and kick returner from 1986-88, Blake picked the Gophers because he wanted to play at the highest level.

“I didn’t try to step on his toes too much,” Steve said. “I was there to guide him.”

While 10 former Division III players were on NFL rosters last fall — including Concordia (Moorhead) receiver Brandon Zylstra with the Vikings — the Big Ten had 84 on players on just the NFL teams that made the 2018 playoffs.

Cashman’s breakthrough moment for the Gophers came in a 17-12 upset victory over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. The sophomore had 12 tackles, including two for lost yards, and a sack. It was the first time he thought he could play in the NFL.

That season, he led the team with 7 1/2 sacks and made 45 tackles. But he still didn’t have a scholarship then — and he endured a torn labrum in each shoulder.

“We had some really serious conversations,” Steve said. “He was very frustrated that he hadn’t gotten (a scholarship) yet. I just said, ‘Look, you are doing a lot of great things. It’s going to come.’”

The scholarship arrived when Fleck and his staff put it in a plastic Easter egg during spring practices in 2017. During his junior year that fall, a second torn labrum in his left shoulder set him back and he had limited playing time behind starting weak-side linebacker Jon Celestin.

“Those were some painful surgeries and long recoveries, too,” Steve said. “He got back to where he wanted to compete. I know his junior year was tough for him because he wasn’t getting enough playing time like his sophomore year when he blew it up.”

But Cashman has come out on top. He has gone from overlooked walk-on to a soon-to-be drafted NFL player. He will earn his marketing degree from the U’s Carlson School of Management in May. It’s all a scenario Cashman thinks about every day.

“It’s something that I see as a blessing in my life,” he said. “I think it’s made me a better person and a better player. Every day I came in as a walk-on and came into the football building with the approach to prove people wrong, prove myself wrong and make a better version of myself. I carry that same mentality into the NFL.”

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