Apple began the Big Ten East showdown on the bench nursing a hamstring injury having not practiced all week leading up to the game in East Lansing. But when his replacement, fellow redshirt freshman Gareon Conley, had a couple of obvious tough plays, the Buckeye staff looked at Apple, who had loosening up on a stationary bike on the sideline on the cold evening.
It was go time.
“It got to a point, we said, ‘Eli, You've got to go,’ ” co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash said. “And Eli said, ‘I'm ready.’ He went in there, he played. And he didn't play his best football at the end of the game. Gave up a touchdown in the fourth quarter that was disappointing.
“But throughout the course of the game, from when he went in to that point, he made some plays, both in the run game and in the pass game.”
Apple finished with four tackles, two pass breakups and a critical fourth-down tackle for loss to short-circuit a third-quarter drive as the Spartans attempted to come back from a second-half deficit brought on in part because of Apple’s standout play.
It was just the latest solid performance in the maturation of Apple, who has gone through the typical ups and downs a first-year starter at the cornerback spot might have. The good news is that Apple has the short memory so prized for top prospects at his position, something the even-keel corner has had since he was a child.
“The main thing is just to stay even-keeled,” Apple said. “You can never get too high or too low. After you get beat, you still have to be out there, so you have to focus on every play. It’s definitely hard because you never want to get beat, but when it does happen, you have to forget about the play – snap it clear and figure out how you can get better.”
He notched his first career interception in the prime-time Virginia Tech game then added his second in the end zone during the win at Maryland, but he was beat for touchdowns in single coverage against Cincinnati and Penn State while giving up a fourth-quarter score vs. MSU when he and safety Tyvis Powell appeared to miscommunicate. He’s also been solid in run support and in the screen game, using his aggressiveness and triggering to pick up a fumble for a scoop-and-score vs. Rutgers.
“You don’t see the wide eyes you saw the first game,” head coach Urban Meyer said of Apple’s improvement. “He was a very immature player a year ago; he’s a mature guy (now). He’s acting like a guy who’s played a lot of football now.”
Apple pointed to increased confidence and comfort for his improvement throughout the season, as well as an improved understanding of how to prepare for games in the film room. He carries a notebook into film sessions and meetings, using a highlighter to point out the important things he’ll need to know each week. He also notices such small details as receiver splits and tendencies through that work.
“When you first get out there, especially in a big stadium like Ohio State has, 108,000 fans, it can get a little intimidating at times,” Apple said. “But the guys on the team, the leaders and everybody, have helped me get transitioned in as well and I feel like I’m more comfortable on the field and I’m starting to notice stuff out there more than when I first got out there.”
So far, things are going according to plan for Apple, who has rebounded from a redshirt season in 2013 that was admittedly tough. It was so bad he didn’t lose his black stripe, the act that symbolically shows that an incoming player is officially worthy of being considered a full-fledged Buckeye, during camp or the season.
The black stripe was still on his helmet when spring began, but Apple had it pulled off at OSU’s student appreciation practice thanks to an excellent showing. By the beginning of fall camp, he was mano a mano with Conley when it came to the starting job and pulled away to the point he’s started every game.
Apple never doubted himself, he said through last year’s struggles, and he has reason why. When he was in sixth grade, his mother, Annie, made all of her children put together their own version of a “vision board.” Her goal was to get her children focused on their goals at a young age.
“Write down what you want to be, everything you want to do, and write instructions and principles you’re going to use to make that happen,” she told BSB about her plan.
The vision board is still in Eli’s room at his home in New Jersey, and on it you can see a few things the Ohio State cornerback already has accomplished. A young football player at the time he made the board, Apple put on paper that he wanted to be a U.S. Army All-American in high school. By his senior year at Voorhees Eastern High School, that was accomplished.
Also on the list? The dream to play at Ohio State. Apple also crossed that one off the list when he committed to the Buckeyes in February 2012 to join the program in the class of 2013.
Next up? Apple also listed at the age of 11 that he wanted win the Thorpe Award as the nation’s best collegiate defensive back, and now that he’s not just starting with three years of eligibility left, that one could happen down the road as well.
“I’m just proud that he’s living his dream,” Annie said. “It’s amazing. Everything that he’s ever wanted to accomplish, so far, he’s on track.”
The latest step was Saturday, when Apple’s strong performance helped lead to the biggest win of the year for Ohio State.
“I see a kid who continues to mature, confidence continues to grow,” Ash said. “Saturday night was a great challenge for Eli, great opportunity for us to see how he was going to respond. … I mean, he showed some grit, some determination, some guts, some toughness that honestly we didn't know Eli had.”