DURHAM, N.C. – Duke All-American safety Jeremy Cash’s search for the soul of college football’s ideals began when he committed as a high school kid four years ago to play for then-Ohio State coach Jim Tressel.
By the time he arrived in the fall of 2011 from Plantation (Fla.) High, he instead competed as a true freshman for interim head coach Luke Fickell. Once the disappointing 6-7 season concluded, Ohio State hired Urban Meyer to take over in 2012.
Three coaches in the span of a little more than 12 months was not the deal Cash signed up for. And when he met with Meyer and felt he had a grasp on Meyer’s style, he made a call to a friend on Duke’s roster about contacting Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe as a transfer.
“There is a vast difference between Coach Cutcliffe and Coach Meyer,” Cash said. “Just from the vibe that I received from Coach Meyer, it wasn’t what I was looking for. I was looking for a person who is oriented with you on and off the field. Typically at some of these bigger schools, it’s more of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. That isn’t what I was looking for.”
Cash’s experience cuts to the core of college football’s conflict with money. Can it still be about the ideal of academic opportunity for players and the school’s pride in the program for wins on the field and graduation rates off it? Or has it devolved into building football factories for the small fraction of players with NFL opportunities and chasing television dollars that can result in NCAA scandals?
Cash’s story illustrates the complicated fight for the heart and soul of college football.
Tressel was forced to resign over the 2011 Memorial Day weekend. The NCAA said he withheld information in the investigation of players such as quarterback Terrell Pryor selling Ohio State memorabilia and gear for improper benefits.
But in Cash’s mind, Tressel, who now serves as Youngstown State University’s president and will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on December 8, still possesses the ideals he finds in Cutcliffe and didn’t see in Meyer.
“Coach Cutcliffe’s personality and his relationships with his players is that they always come back to see him no matter what school he was at when he coached them,” said Cash, who most notably has observed Peyton Manning (Tennessee) and Eli Manning (Ole Miss) visit with Cutcliffe on Duke’s campus in the off-season. “That’s the type of person I’m looking for as a mentor, a father figure and as a coach.”
When Cutcliffe considered taking Cash as a transfer, he called Tressel.
“I knew he was a physical guy that tried to make every tackle,” Cutcliffe said. “When he expressed interest through a player on our squad, I re-looked at his tape . I know Jim Tressel very well. I called Jim and he confirmed what I thought. I think Jeremy also has blossomed as a player in our system.”
At Duke, Cash sat out 2012 as a transfer, but he had an immediate impact as a third-year sophomore in 2013. He earned second-team All-American honors from USA Today and first-team All-ACC recognition as he helped the Blue Devils win the ACC Coastal title.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder repeated with second-team All-American honors and All-ACC recognition as a junior. He’s putting together another such season.
“He knows our defense in and out and that’s helped him become a better player,” Cutcliffe said. “You can say this about Jeremy because it won’t affect his game: I don’t think that there is a defensive player – I haven’t heard of any – playing better or as well as Jeremy Cash is playing, anywhere.”
Cash boasts the unusual statistic of a safety leading a major conference in tackles for a loss with 9.5. Duke is 4-1 overall and 2-0 in the ACC Coastal while chasing an unprecedented fourth straight bowl trip entering Saturday’s game at Army West Point (1-4).
“I’m sure people looking at that and trying to figure out how that’s happening,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re probably thinking we’re blitzing. That’s not the case. He reads and reacts well. We do use him where we are pressuring but not necessarily blitzing.”
The Renaissance Man needed a second chance at Duke, but he has cashed in on big-time football’s recognition without sacrificing academic ideals. He earned one degree psychology and turned down the 2015 NFL Draft to return as a fifth-year senior in pursuit of a Masters’ degree.
Another influence to his college experience was meeting his girlfriend, Bianca Gray. She graduated from North Carolina last year with a degree in biology and chemistry. Cash said Gray and her parents influenced passing on the NFL Draft for now.
“They were the biggest proponents on that decision,” Cash said. “They are important people in my life. I prayed about it, and we decided how much further education can take me in life. I can earn my Masters’ degree and I can raise my NFL draft stock. My girlfriend and her parents are at every game supporting me.”
But in this celebrity world, he missed out on that national title Ohio State won last year if he had remained with the Buckeyes.
“That was a wonderful feeling for them,” Cash said. “I’m glad everything worked out for them. I know everything has worked out for me being here the way the Lord meant.”
He believes he found college football’s heart and soul.
“I definitely think you have to have a bigger picture,” Cash said. “And that’s not to say that all the guys at Ohio State go there for the glitz and glamor. But that wasn’t what I was looking for. By coming here to Duke I have a worthwhile degree. I’m pursuing a Masters’. Long after my football career, education will be at the forefront of any decisions I make. It has been great to be part of this program.”