It wasn’t 105,000 fans in Ohio Stadium, but what Eli Apple did in front of an estimated 2,500 students at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center Saturday afternoon qualified as a breakout performance.
The redshirt freshman cornerback snared two interceptions, chased down elusive speedster Dontre Wilson and delivered a bone-crushing hit to wide receiver Jeff Greene, who’s four inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than the lanky Apple. All of it led to Apple having his black stripe removed at the conclusion of Ohio State’s third annual student appreciation day.
“It felt great,” he said. “I’ve been here for a while and to see everyone else get their black stripe off and for me not to, it has been tough. When I got the opportunity to come out today and make some plays and get my black stripe off, it just means the world to me.”
Apple was one of a handful of true freshmen to enroll last January, giving him an advantage in a push to establish depth in the secondary. He came to Ohio State as one of the top players in a class ranked as high as No. 1 in the country. But playing time never materialized and Apple was redshirted.
The spring of 2014 began with Apple attempting to earn a spot in the cornerback rotation. He was sidelined, though, by a still undiagnosed condition that left him fatigued. As team doctors monitor his ailment, Apple has finally grown comfortable on the field.
The removal of his black stripe was the culmination of a challenging year. It might seem like a small gesture, but it marks his official welcoming as a Buckeye and acts as a rite of passage.
“I feel like my problem last year was me being consistent,” Apple said. “This whole spring, I feel like I am getting better every day. I have been working every day, focusing on my techniques and getting with Coach Coombs. I was anxious to show people what I’ve been doing.”
Teammate Nick Vannett, a tight end who’s collided with Apple this spring, said the hit on Greene removed all doubt when it came the status of Apple’s black stripe. Senior Doran Grant is the lone returning starter at cornerback, with Armani Reeves, Gareon Conley and Apple battling to be the second starter. After Saturday’s performance, Apple’s come into focus in the secondary.
Even if he doesn’t start, cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said the Buckeyes will use a rotation at the position, echoing the sentiments of Larry Johnson along the defensive line. Reeves, Conley and Apple have all received first-team reps. For Apple, though, it’s especially satisfying after taking detours along the road to playing time.
“It just feels like a monkey’s off my back," he said, admitting there were moments of disappointment and hurt last season. “I look at some of the reports and sometimes it’s disheartening. My problem last year was just me being consistent. I’d have a good practice and then another practice I'd be bad. Throughout spring, I just wanted to get better every day.”
He was too anxious and restless before, eager to provide highlights for coaches. As the game slowed down, so too did Apple’s mind. Instinct took over and with it came the ability to defend at a high level.
“Eli apple has had a very good spring, so I’m really excited about that,” Coombs said.
The spring game is Apple’s next opportunity to impress, and he’ll get to do so in a game-like atmosphere at the Horseshoe. Regardless of future successes, a chip will remain on his shoulder. Apple said Coombs, Grant and Reeves have been constants in his pursuit for relevance. The trio has pushed Apple and advised him to remain resolute.
“I have been [playing with a chip on my shoulder] since high school,” Apple said. “I didn’t do that last year because I was thinking too much. I have great leaders around me. Doran Grant and Armani have really been pushing me hard. Coach Coombs has been pushing me harder than anybody. Coach Meyer has really been challenging me.”
One year ago, Apple remembers embarrassing himself at student appreciation day. It foreshadowed the down season to come but provided motivation. Three hundred sixty-five days later marked redemption.
It’s possible Apple relished the festivities more than any other student, even those with stunned looks as they snapped photos with Urban Meyer and Braxton Miller.
“I just have to keep improving,” Apple said. “That’s the main thing for me right now.”