DURHAM — Jeremy Cash had never been to Duke. He had never sat down with coach David Cutcliffe, either. But former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel spoke highly of Cutcliffe, so when Cash was looking for a new program after leaving the Buckeyes, he chose the Blue Devils.
“Jeremy came in with his eyes closed,” defensive backs coach Derek Jones said. “He just kind of stepped out on faith.”
Saturday, he will step out onto the field for Duke’s Spring game, marking the first public display of the former 4-star recruit in Durham. Cash was forced to sit out last year, reduced to watching as Duke went to its first bowl since 1994.
Cash’s route to Duke connects to the tattoo scandal that kept undefeated Ohio State out of a bowl game last year.
He committed to Ohio State during the spring of his junior year at Plantation High, near Fort Lauderdale, quietly getting the decision out of the way. But when Tressel was forced out at Ohio State before Cash’s freshman season, he knew he would be leaving, too. The Buckeyes’ decision to hire Urban Meyer, whom had not offered Cash while he was the coach at Florida, further convinced him that he needed to leave.
“I honestly knew the day that (Tressel) left that I wasn’t going to stay there,” said Cash, who played in five games as a true freshman. “He was the main reason I went there.”
The Blue Devils caught another break when Cash returned to Plantation High while he was on winter break in 2011. An assistant principal told him he thought Duke would be a good fit. Cash was surprised, but contacted Tim Burton, a childhood friend who played for the Blue Devils.
Burton, who was eventually dismissed from the team in October for a violation of team policy, spoke highly of the work ethic and precision at Duke. And Tressel spoke highly of Cutcliffe. Once Cash had been granted his release from Ohio State, he called Jones, his future position coach.
“When Tim told me he was thinking about coming, I thought he was set on coming here,” Jones said of Cash. “But by the time we got his release and were free to talk to him, in the initial conversation between he and I, he told me that he was looking for somewhere to go, and he called out us, Arkansas, and he called out about five other schools, and I’m thinking, ‘good God, here we go again.’”
Cash eventually narrowed his decision to Duke, Miami and South Florida. Even though his parents had doubts about him picking another school far from home (and one that he had never visited), Cash chose Duke.
“The direction that the program is going, it shows a lot about the team and the atmosphere around here,” Cash said. “From the academic standpoint, I realized that football is going to handle itself. If you’re a player, they will find you.”
Cash spent the last year on the scout team, working on staying in shape and mastering the 4-2-5 defensive scheme. Jones and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles wished the Blue Devils could have used him last year. Cash said it was particularly painful to watch the Miami game, against familiar coaches and players. Duke lost that offensive showcase 52-45.
It was mentally tough at times, Cash said, to stand on the sidelines last year--a first for him in his football career. But Cutcliffe, especially, kept his spirits high.
“Coach Cutcliffe was always there when I needed a shoulder,” he said.
This spring, he has spent so much time in Jones’s office that the coach jokes he needs his own desk. A minor pectoral injury slowed him a bit, but Jones expects him to be flying around from the strike safety position Saturday, acting as a safety/linebacker hybrid that will often creep toward the line.
Cash is ready to play. And the coaches are ready to use him.
“He’s got great potential to be a playmaker,” Knowles said. “Just that whole attitude of aggressiveness and a little bit cocky, high expectations, we need some of that.”
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley