Around this time last year, Don Cherry was just trying to make sure he lined up correctly. What a difference a year makes.
When the Eagles kicked off their 2017 Training Camp on July 24, Cherry found himself calling out plays from his middle linebacker position -- and making sure everyone else was lined up correctly.
Taking such a prominent surge forward is not unusual for a second year player, especially one of Cherry’s ability.
Cherry led a decorated career at Villanova, where he tallied 331 tackles, 14.0 sacks, and an astonishing 46.5 tackles for a loss in 46 career games for the Wildcats. He also finished second for the 2015 Buck Buchanon Award, given to the top defensive player in the FCS.
Despite the impressive resume, the former Wildcat went unclaimed in the 2016 NFL Draft. Cherry proved to be in high demand, as the Chicago Bears moved swiftly to sign the 6'2", 240-pound, two-time FCS All-American on April 30, 2016. Cherry took part in OTAs with the Bears, only to learn he had been waived shortly after on June 16. The disappointing result would soon turn into a opportunity of a lifetime, in a city he was very familiar.
The Eagles signed Cherry to add depth to a depleted linebacking corp on July 22, 2016, just days before camp. After joining his second team in as many months, the odds were seemingly stacked against him. After an impressive preseason in which he earned 11 tackles, and a pass defended, the Eagles opted to make Cherry a casualty on final day of cuts on Sept. 3. After clearing waivers, the Eagles promptly signed Cherry to the practice squad on Sept. 5, a monumental feat for someone who was signed less than a week before training camp opened.
Cherry found himself bouncing on and off the practice squad, until he was re-signed in mid October, and remained on the roster for the rest of the season. After spending the season learning and developing on the practice squad, Cherry went into his first offseason with a better understanding of coach Jim Schwartz’s defense.
After an impactful string of OTA practices in June, where he spent his time exclusively as the second-team middle linebacker, he offered to take on added responsibility, getting cross-trained at strong-side linebacker. Possessing a high football IQ, exceptional instinctiveness and innate leadership ability, Cherry will be given every opportunity to win a roster spot this summer, battling the likes of rookie Nate Gerry, and second-year players Joe Walker and Steven Daniels.
Returning more confident than a year ago, Cherry appears to be growing into the role of becoming a more vocal member within the defense. As is the case with most reserve players across the league, special teams ability also weighs heavily into consideration when dealing with precious roster spots.
This would seem to bode well for Cherry, as he spent the entirety of OTAs with the first-team kickoff unit, amongst players who are core members. In the early stages of training camp thus far, he has split time leading the second and third-unit defense with fellow second-year linebacker Joe Walker.
On just the second day of camp, Cherry has already made his presence felt. During a 7-on-7 period, Cherry intercepted quarterback Matt McGloin on back-to-back drives, returning one for a touchdown. Cherry followed up his eye-opening second day with a strong third day of camp, breaking up a pass over the middle that was intended for rookie tight end Billy Brown.
Cherry’s strong start to camp has caught the attention of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who gave him a ringing endorsement on Tuesday.
Schwartz heaps on praise for LB Don Cherry. Said he’s much improved from last year, looks like a different player. #Eagles— Brandon Lee Gowton (@BrandonGowton) July 25, 2017
If Cherry continues to build on what he started last summer, his story this preseason may end much differently.
What a difference a year makes.