MINNEAPOLIS - As it goes leading up to this week's NFL draft, hype for linebacker Blake Cashman peaked only after the Minnesota Gophers' best defender from last season removed his pads and left the football field.
Cashman's standout performance at the NFL scouting combine, where he proved to be among the most athletic linebackers in the 2019 class, led scouts and analysts alike to reconsider pre-draft rankings. His phone buzzed with messages from teams wanting additional workouts and interviews; many draft analysts started saying he could be taken as high as the third or fourth round.
"It made a lot of people go back and watch my film. It brought a lot of hype to my name I didn't have before," said Cashman, who ranked in the top five among linebackers in four of six combine drills. "It's very important to have a lot of buzz around your name, get people thinking about you and consider drafting you."
The attention has been even more than Cashman anticipated since he skipped the Gophers' Quick Lane Bowl victory in December to prepare for the pros. Because of the wide range of speculation on his draft stock, he said he will gather with close family and friends for Thursday night's first round. Then comes the real anxiety.
"Reality is going to strike very soon," Cashman said.
His draft preparation included workouts at ETS Performance in the Twin Cities, where Vikings receiver Adam Thielen is a leading member and Vikings linebacker Ben Gedeon is a drill partner.
Cashman's athleticism (4.5-second 40-yard dash) and playmaking came as no surprise to followers of his career - from four-time state champion at Eden Prairie High School to walk-on-turned-star at the University of Minnesota. After working two years to earn a scholarship, Cashman bloomed last fall with a team-leading 104 tackles (15 for a loss).
As a former receiver and cornerback in high school, Cashman always had speed and agility. Mike Grant, Eden Prairie's head coach, didn't move him to linebacker until his final playoffs as a senior.
"He was our leading tackler in the whole playoffs, which made me wonder what the heck we were doing the whole year playing him at corner," Grant recalled.
Questions about Cashman center on his lack of prototypical size (6-foot-1, 237 pounds) for an NFL linebacker. His surgically repaired shoulders have also come under scrutiny. He's projected as a fifth- or sixth-round pick on NFL.com; longtime analyst Lance Zierlein wonders whether he can take on blockers and cover backs and tight ends sideline to sideline.
"Former walk-ons usually have chips on their shoulders that are permanent fixtures, and Cashman is no different," Zierlein writes in Cashman's NFL draft profile. "He's made the most out of every opportunity he's created for himself, but his lack of athletic traits and length create a small margin for error in his play."
Grant has heard similar criticisms of Cashman and fellow Eden Prairie linebacker Ryan Connelly, a former walk-on at Wisconsin who could be a late-round pick Saturday.
Cashman and Connelly (6-2, 242 pounds), a former high school quarterback, hope their parallel paths end in a similar spot with calls from NFL teams.
"They don't pay you to be a certain height and weight, they pay you to make plays," Grant said. "That's why I think both are going to make it. They're both very instinctive, quick to the ball."