MINNEAPOLIS - Blake Cashman never considered quitting the Gophers football team.
Not as the freshman walk-on who struggled in his transition to college in 2015. Not as a sophomore who failed at first to grasp added linebacker responsibilities in 2016. Not as a rising junior who played in all 26 games those two seasons without a scholarship, just as the team made a coaching change for the 2017 season.
When Cashman was named to the Associated Press all-state first-team as a senior at Eden Prairie High School, which won a state championship his senior year, his father, Steve Cashman, an undersized defensive back at St. Thomas in the 1980s, didn't chime in much with life advice or coaching points. Blake could fend for himself.
That changed over the past few years when Blake felt, at times, other players were getting more undue chances to play.
"He would be the one to step in and tell me how proud of me he was and (to) push through because, 'You're a hard worker. Get after it and things will fall into place,'" Blake relayed Wednesday.
Now a senior, Cashman leads the Gophers with 18 tackles, including 5½ tackles for lost yards, in two games heading into the final nonconference game against Miami (Ohio) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
Cashman, who led the team with 7½ sacks in 2016, earned his scholarship in April 2017, and last fall, he was a special-teams standout and backup linebacker with 30 tackles and two sacks in 12 games.
"He's improved so much mentally," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "His football I.Q., his instinctive-ness, and he's healthier, stronger, and that helps him in every aspect."
After the graduation of Jon Celestin opened up a starting spot, Cashman sat out spring practices with a shoulder injury. He returned healthy, bigger at 235 pounds and earned that weak-side linebacker position in fall camp.
"He does way better if you never take him out," Fleck said. "He's one of those groove players. When he's in a groove, he goes and goes. That's what makes him really strong. Every play he's in there, he's involved and doing multiple things."
With the season underway, the Gophers' starting offense doesn't go up against the starting 'D' that much in practice. That's OK with center Jared Weyler, who would have to fend of Cashman on blitzes.
"He is difficult to block because he's powerful, but he also has that speed," Weyler said. "A lot of guys are kind of one dimensional as a linebacker; they either have the power or the speed. If they have the power you have to go after them, if they have the speed you kind of have to slow down and get your hands on them. With him, it's hard because you don't know what he's going to do. Is he going to go with power or speed? He's got both. He's a tremendous, tremendous athlete."
Fleck believes Cashman could play in the NFL because of his speed and versatility to play on special teams.
But as a senior, Cashman is more reflective than forward-thinking, with a deeper appreciation of his dad's pep talks.
"Especially being an adult now, hearing that from him, it was very touching because I didn't hear that from my dad in high school," Cashman said. "... Then coming here, it was a big change because I wasn't getting looked at by the coaches the same way I was in high school. That was an adjustment, but he knew it and he kept giving me confidence and helped guide me along the way."
Cashman also appreciates what upperclassmen did for him at the U. He mentioned mentors in linebackers Jack Lynn, Nick Rallis, Cody Poock and Celestin, as well as defensive backs Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Damarius Travis.
When position coaches wrapped up meetings, those players would help underclassmen with "vet moves," such as subtle signs to key on in coverages. "Those are things that have really helped me along the way," Cashman said.
Now, Cashman - along with Thomas Barber, Kamal Martin and Julian Huff - is paying that forward to true freshmen linebackers Thomas Rush, Mariano Sori-Marin, Braelen Oliver.
"As long as you have great leaders that guide you along the way, it's only right that you return the favor to the young guys," Cashman said. "You want to keep a good road of success and a strong position."