Fleck sees a model Gopher in Cashman
MINNEAPOLIS — Blake Cashman is a 6-foot-2, 230-pound, speedy, sure-tackling member of the Gophers' kick and punt coverage units. On defense, the former walk-on is an athletic linebacker with a knack for blitzing, primarily on third downs.
As the Eden Prairie, Minn., native continues to carve out a unique niche during his junior season, coach P.J. Fleck envisions future Minnesota teams brimming with Cashmans.
"If we had 125 Blake Cashmans, that's the goal," Fleck said Tuesday, Nov. 7. "Now — different positions. (But) I'm saying the heart, the spirit, the fire."
Cashman received a scholarship when he cracked open a plastic egg after a team-wide hunt last Easter. The ride came after he led the team with 7½ sacks in 2016 and won defensive MVP honors with 12 tackles and a sack in the 17-12 Holiday Bowl victory over Washington State.
This season, Cashman has 18 tackles — 10 on special teams. After playing fewer than 100 third-down snaps across eight games, Cashman received his first extended playing time at outside linebacker in last week's 33-10 loss to Michigan. With a season-high six tackles and his first sack this season, he was among the few positives on defenses.
Cashman played more on first and second downs as Gophers starter and captain Jon Celestin continues to fight through an elbow injury. Celestin's heavily wrapped right arm made it difficult for him to wrap up and make tackles against the Wolverines.
Fleck said Cashman will continue to play on first and second downs, while trying to keep Celestin, who is second on the team with 64 tackles, healthy during the final stretch of three games. The Gophers (4-5, 1-5 Big Ten) play Nebraska (4-5, 3-3) at 11 a.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
"We have to do everything we can to get Blake on the field a lot more and move him around at different positions," Fleck said.
Special teams coordinator Rob Wenger didn't have much time to watch film when he was hired in January. The Gophers staff needed to put together a recruiting class in three weeks before national signing day, but when Wenger had a break, he pushed play for the video. Cashman quickly jumped off the screen.
"I said, 'Who is 36?'" Wenger said of Cashman's number. "This dude plays his (butt) off."
His next trip was to defensive coordinator Robb Smith's office to see how much Cashman might be available to cover kicks. As a freshman walk-on in 2015, that's about all he did. Cashman played all 13 games and finished with four tackles.
"I just looked for every opportunity to get on the field," Cashman said. "You get out there as a competitor, and you want to do everything you can."
Last year, Cashman had 45 tackles and was given the team's Gary Tinsley Award, named after the late linebacker who passed away in his dorm in 2012. The distinction is given to the player who embodies Tinsely's underdog spirit.
When Cashman received the scholarship, he vowed to not change his work ethic, and his ongoing drive is one of the attributes that Fleck holds in highest regard and is a major reason he wishes he could clone him.
"He refuses to lose," Fleck said. "... There is a refuse to lose that comes as part of being a champion. They know how to win so much that losing is not an option, and that's how Blake Cashman plays."
Gophers set graduation record
The Gophers athletic department announced Wednesday that its student athletes posted a program-record 92 percent graduation rate.
"It will always be our priority for Gopher student-athletes to graduate and leave campus prepared to take on the world as the future leaders of our communities," Gophers Athletics Director Mark Coyle said in a statement. "I appreciate the dedication our students and academic staff have shown to making it their priority as well."
The mark, which measured 2010 freshmen over a six-year period, topped the department's previous best score of 90 percent from 2016. The NCAA's Graduation Success Rate (GSR) started in 2005, and the Gophers had a 67 percent GSR that year.
All 11 women's programs had a GSR of 87 percent or higher. Six had 100 percent: basketball, gymnastics, hockey, soccer, tennis and volleyball.
Eight of the men's programs were 83 percent or higher. Cross country, track and field, golf, gymnastics and tennis were at 100 percent.
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