After sending a first-round draft pick in Bradley Roby to the NFL, the Ohio State Buckeyes had a void to fill at cornerback.
Enter Eli Apple.
The redshirt-freshman cornerback has stepped into a starting role for the Buckeyes and has helped the OSU defense to the 18th best pass defense in the country.
OSU coach Urban Meyer said he was pleased to see Apple’s success after a less-than-successful 2013 redshirt year for the New Jersey native.
“Eli Apple is a guy that I’d like to think is a product of the way we do our business,” Meyer said Monday. “In the weight room, in the classroom … he was not what we wanted when we signed him.”
Apple agreed with his coach, adding that he was challenged more than just physically in his first year as a Buckeye.
“Mentally and physically, I wasn’t ready at all as far as tackling,” Apple said Monday. “As far as getting in the weight room, I wasn’t really strong enough to really play out there, I was getting tossed around a little bit.”
Meyer said the physical struggles weren’t the only thing holding Apple back.
“He was lazy in the classroom, lazy about his business (but he has) got a great family, they really supported us in our disciplining of him, and he’s doing great in school and great on the field,” Meyer said. “And I grabbed him yesterday and I said, ‘This is what we recruited.’ He’s playing pretty well.”
Apple said he’s worked on getting his grades up, and added that he believes it is showing on the field.
“I feel like it all goes hand-in-hand,” he said. “When you are doing good in school, you are doing good in football. It all correlates.”
Apple has started all but one game this season, but it was in the game he didn’t start that he made arguably his biggest impact.
After fellow redshirt-freshman cornerback Gareon Conley gave up a 44-yard completion and a subsequent touchdown on Michigan State’s opening drive Nov. 8, Apple was called upon to come into the game and perform, which co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash said Apple did admirably.
“He did not practice at all (that) week. Did not take one rep at practice. And leading up to the game, even on Saturday morning, we weren’t sure if Eli was going to be able to play or not,” Ash said on Nov. 10. “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. I mean he showed some grit, some determination, some guts, some toughness that honestly we didn’t know Eli had.”
Apple tied for the team lead for pass breakups against the Spartans with two, and added a tackle for loss from the corner spot.
Apple said his improvements this season are because he’s learned from the veterans in front of him.
“When I first got here, I definitely had my little struggles. I feel like that redshirt year really helped me a lot just watching guys like Roby, watching guys like (senior cornerback) Doran (Grant), see how they handle their business and picking up stuff from them,” Apple said. “When I came in this year, I really wanted to take an approach — take things serious, work on my technique, work on all aspects of my game and it has really helped out.”
Grant, who Meyer said Monday he would nominate for an all-Big Ten honor, said before the Michigan State game that Apple was already showing signs of improvement.
“(He is) getting better and growing every day,” Grant said Oct. 22. “You just see him growing and taking coaching and just getting better as a player everyday and that’s good.”
Apple said playing opposite of Grant has been one of the most important keys to his personal progress.
“I feel like my confidence has grown after each game,” Apple said. “It’s just great being a starting corner, playing opposite of Doran Grant, somebody that just takes the game so serious. It’s one of those things where you have to raise your game up a notch every week because you got somebody like him who just goes so hard and has great preparation.”
Apple and the Buckeyes are now preparing for the Indiana Hoosiers as the two teams are scheduled to kick off at noon on Saturday from Ohio Stadium.