Obviously there’s talent, but the Buckeyes wouldn’t recruit a player if he didn’t have that. But how does one get to the point where there’s confidence, belief, swagger – the feeling that not only can one make a play one-on-one against a receiver like Amari Cooper but that one will make that play?
Over the past year, Eli Apple has built that. He entered April of last year still with a black stripe on his helmet but made a rapid ascent up the ranks, winning a camp battle with fellow redshirt freshman Gareon Conley to start opposite Doran Grant, improving to the point he earned freshman All-America honors and now serving as the confidence-filled leader of the cornerbacks room.
So what advice does Eli have to the younger players – Conley, Damon Webb and the banged-up Marshon Lattimore – who are vying for the job to start opposite him? After all, he’s lived the exact development path each of those players hopes to follow over the next year.
“Not everything is going to go your way,” Apple said. “You always have to keep striving and keep making improvements and really take this stuff seriously. It’s not just come out here and practice and that’s it. You have to be doing something football-related all the time.”
That’s the hidden key to confidence – the diligence, the preparation that it takes to feel as though all bases are covered. And that’s what Apple discovered on the way to a 53-tackle, three-interception, one-touchdown season last year which was capped off by his helping keep Cooper, Alabama’s Heisman finalist, under wraps in the Sugar Bowl win.
That’s especially true given the high-risk, high-reward defense the Buckeyes now play. The switch to a defense that utilizes much more press coverage and man coverage a year ago clearly paid dividends, but it is a style that requires excellent technique, great athleticism and, of course, a lot of belief in one’s ability to handle the best.
So while the Buckeyes are still trying to build someone up to for an Apple-style breakout season, cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs feels the work is being put into get there.
“I love my room right now, I love my unit,” he said. “They’re really working at the craft, they’re studying themselves, they are grading themselves every day. They show up ready to work.”
Building that confidence was perhaps a project when it comes to Conley, who lost it when he had a rough cameo starting in place of Apple – who was nursing a hamstring injury – at Michigan State.
Conley was burned for a long pass early in that game and then missed a tackle leading to a touchdown on Michigan State’s first series, and Apple was quickly deputized from the stationary bike to replace the Massillon Washington product.
“Last year, I came in at Michigan State and messed up a couple of plays and that just kind of brought me down,” he admits now. “I didn’t have as much confidence and belief in myself, but just knowing that my teammates know that I’m out there and my coaches put me out there, that just builds my confidence.
“Nobody likes getting beat, so you beat yourself up. But you have to know that you’ve got to build upon that. You have to use that as motivation to know that you’ve got to play the next play.”
Conley has done just that, moving up to the first unit and feeling better than ever about his abilities. Then there’s Webb, who played special teams last year as a true freshman and is picking the brains of his fellow corners in an effort to be ready should he be called upon.
“I’m just learning from the old heads, like Doran,” he said. “I’m learning from Eli, and even Gareon. We’re all learning from each other and just trying to get better.”
That is how Apple got to his current perch, and it’s the attitude the Buckeyes are looking for. When it comes to whether Ohio State will have players ready to have the confidence to play the same aggressive style as a year ago, Coombs makes no bones about it.
“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “It’s the mission, it’s the quest and we will.”