Blake Cashman was the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ lone bright spot in last year’s NFL draft.
Before Minnesota set a modern-era record with five draft picks in April, Cashman was the only Gophers player taken in 2019, going in the fifth round to the New York Jets. His standing grew soon after the season started.
In Week 2, about three hours before kickoff of Monday Night Football, Jets inside linebackers coach Frank Bush told Cashman he would make his first NFL start.
“You better be ready to go, rookie,” he told him.
Because he didn’t take first-team reps in practice, Cashman figured he’d play in third-down packages and on special teams, like he did in the season opener against the Bills. But after only 21 defensive snaps in his debut, Cashman played all 67 defensive plays against Cleveland, making six tackles and getting credit for half a sack on Baker Mayfield.
“I played a pretty decent game, and even got a compliment out of (Jets defensive coordinator) Gregg Williams,” Cashman said. “That was nice.”
In Week 3, Cashman had a career-high eight tackles against Tom Brady’s Patriots in Week 3 and because of injuries to four other Jets linebackers, he became a fixture in the middle of the Jets defense, making five starts in the next six games.
His favorite game came in a Week 6 when the Jets won their first game of the season against Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys, and he felt he played his best game against the Jaguars in Week 8.That was also his last because he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during a punt protection drill in practice the next week.
Cashman fought the initial diagnosis.
“I’m a rookie and I’m still trying to earn the respect of my teammates and coaches and make a name for myself and live out my dream,” he explained. “I don’t want to give that opportunity up, just because I was playing so much and it was exciting.”
But Cashman had torn his labrum and fractured his shoulder, and his season was kaput with 38 tackles, a half-sack and a fumble recovery. After surgery on both shoulders during his four years as a Gopher, he knew he was in for a long recovery.
“It’s just so overwhelming; it’s just a mental grind,” he said. “You are always battling with your internal self during those periods.”
But Cashman said he’s fully recovered and ready to build on his rookie season. In the first half of last year, he started to get a better understanding of offensive schemes and tendencies.
“We had guys in training camp that were half the athlete (I am) but they were making more plays, and that was because they knew where they needed to be and were faster and they anticipated things happening on the field,” Cashman said. “They just saw things sooner than I did.
“As I got more playing time, I was able to adapt and see those things these … second- and third-year vets were seeing. I was able to put myself in better positions to have an effect on the game and be more of an impact player.”
Cashman wants to pay it forward with fellow Eden Prairie native Carter Coughlin, the former Gophers rush end selected in the seventh round by the New York Giants last month. U nickel back Chris Williamson also was drafted by the Giants in the final round.
All three former Gophers will be in the same city once teams are allowed to return to practice facilities amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“To have someone I grew up with and a former college teammate, and also Chris Williamson to go through that with is really cool — to have those guys out there, guys that I know well, to share that NFL experience and share that dream together,” Cashman said.
Cashman waited a bit to congratulate Coughlin, letting Coughlin’s phone recover from the same flurry of calls and texts Cashman lived through a year ago.
“I’m so proud and happy for him,” he said. “Told him I can’t wait to have him out to the Concrete Jungle.”
With rookie minicamps postponed, Cashman offered to work out with Coughlin in Minnesota and show him some NFL drills that could come in handy while stressing the importance of making an impact on special teams as a rookie.
Cashman had another idea last week: maybe asking Coughlin if he wants to live together in either New York or near the teams’ separate practice facilities in New Jersey.
“I think that would be great,” Cashman said.