Ford: Could Cherry end up on top for Eagles?

The Eagles’ Don Cherry runs during a drill at training camp on Friday, Aug. 13, 2016.

Don Cherry had played in Lincoln Financial Field before last Thursday's exhibition opener for the Eagles, but it wasn't quite the same thing when he was there with the Villanova Wildcats.

"This was a pretty amazing experience, all around," Cherry said after the game ended, after he had played about a third of the snaps at middle linebacker for an NFL team, after the kid who couldn't land a Division I scholarship kept his professional ambitions alive. "It felt great to match up against some of the kids I didn't get to play against in college."

After a great high school career in Trumbull, Conn., Cherry was recruited by a number of larger football schools, including Penn State, Temple and Syracuse. But the only full scholarship offer he received was from Villanova, and it was for academics. He took it.

So, while those other kids took the freeway, Cherry took the sometimes rougher back road through FCS football. The two paths met up last week, however, and they will again Thursday in Pittsburgh.

It would be easy to say Cherry, currently listed as the third-string middle linebacker behind incumbent Jordan Hicks and seventh-round draft pick Joe Walker, has only a slight chance to make the roster, but that would be to overlook him, which has been a mistake in the past. His size and speed aren't eye-popping, but he uses the tools he has better than most.

"He brings the intangibles you love to see in a football player," Villanova coach Andy Talley said. "He's so smart that he's always one step ahead of the play. He's faster on the field than most linebackers, because those guys slow down to figure out where the ball is. He knows where the ball is. He's the equivalent of a 4.5 or 4.6 [40-yard dash] guy when it comes to diagnosing to the football. He probably doesn't run that when you time him, but he's got game speed."

Cherry was good immediately for Talley and Villanova. He played as a true freshman and would eventually become a three-time all-CAA selection and captain of the team. Those honors came while Cherry was working toward a degree at Villanova's school of business with a major in finance. He completed that degree a semester early so he could concentrate on making an NFL team this spring. At some point, Cherry wants to earn an MBA and specialize in international finance, but he'd be happy if that goal has to be delayed.

"I don't really have any doubt. My mindset is to compete. Put me up against any person on the field, and I'll try to kick his ass. If I get my ass knocked down, I'm going to get up and fight again," Cherry said. "That's my attitude. I'm going to compete and take it as far as I can."

Cherry thought he found a place to compete after going undrafted when he signed with the Chicago Bears. There was opportunity at the inside linebacker position, but that dried up when the Bears signed free agents Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan. They cut Cherry in June, and he didn't hook on with the Eagles until just before training camp.

"I've been here a little more than two weeks now, and I put it on my shoulders to learn everything and how to get everyone set up. Learning the playbook the first two nights, I was up until 4 a.m., because I had to get it down and make a good first impression," Cherry said. "I know my job, but you have to know what everyone else is doing, too. You have to be a leader when you're a Mike linebacker, so that just kind of came naturally."

With the Eagles at that position, Hicks is a standout, but he's also been hampered by injuries over his career. There might be a case to be made for keeping extra depth in the middle. According to reports, the team looked into signing 31-year-old free agent Stephen Tulloch, who played for coordinator Jim Schwartz in Detroit, but so far the Eagles are going with what they've got. And, at the moment, that still includes a player who can think his way into looking quicker than he might be.

"Where you usually find that is in guys extending their careers at the end," said linebackers coach Ken Flajole. "As their physical skills diminish, experience allows them to play at the same level because they don't take bad steps. They process the game faster. That's also an advantage for Don because he's a sharp kid. That will help him, but he's still a work in progress. Everyone is still in the conversation right now."

The conversation continues Thursday night against the Steelers. Don Cherry hopes to keep himself in the middle of it for another game. And then another. And on and on.

"He's not going to make a lot of mistakes," Talley said. "When you're undrafted, you have to keep your mistakes to a minimum, and I think he will. Coaches have to get their minds off how big and fast a guy might or might not be. Don is a Matt Szczur [Villanova product with Chicago Cubs]. He's that caliber of athlete, that caliber of person."

Talley said Cherry is the type of player you root for. That would be fine, because rooting the other way doesn't seem like a good idea.