There came a point in Ohio State's 49-37 win over Michigan State two weeks ago where the Buckeyes' defensive coaching staff knew it could no longer play without cornerback Eli Apple on the field.
It came after one drive.
Apple had been nursing a hamstring injury and was held out of practice all week prior to the game against the Spartans. Even up until opening kickoff, it was still a question mark if he'd be able to play.
He didn't start the game — Gareon Conley did in his place. But after Michigan State had some success early on going right at Conley, Apple was called upon to gut it out. He delivered.
"He did not practice at all last week — did not take one rep at practice," Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said following the win over the Spartans. "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. So, we made the decision to start Gareon Conley, went through the first couple of drives there and it got to a point, we said Eli, 'You've got to go,' and Eli said, 'I'm ready.'"
Apple, who admitted Monday he was probably "85 or 90 percent" against Michigan State, probably didn't play his best game of the season against the Spartans, but there was a noticeable difference between he and Conley.
In Ohio State's recent 31-24 win over Minnesota, Apple put forth another strong effort as the Buckeyes' secondary limited the Golden Gophers to just 85 yards through the air.
"He's playing his best football since he's been here," head coach Urban Meyer said of Apple on Monday.
But it certainly wasn't an easy road for Apple to earn that praise from his head coach.
A highly-touted, four-star recruit from Voorhees, N.J., Apple came to Columbus with a lot of hype and was expected to contribute right away as a freshman.
That didn't exactly happen, though. He was redshirted last year and had to sit on the bench and watch as Ohio State's secondary was torched game after game.
"He was not what we wanted when we signed him," Meyer said. "He was lazy in the classroom, lazy about his business."
Fast-forward one year and that doesn't appear to be the case anymore.
"He's 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."
While it may have been frustrating for Apple to sit and watch at times last year, he says the coaching staff's decision to redshirt him was a good thing looking back.
“It was definitely something I had a talk with Coach Coombs about just because it was the first time I never really played and had to sit and watch guys so it was a humbling experience," Apple said. "It’s something I really had sit-ins with Coach Coombs about and sit-ins with Coach Meyer about so it was something I knew would take patience and now I’m at this point which is great.”
Ohio State's secondary ranks 18th nationally and fourth in the Big Ten, allowing just 189.4 yards per game. Those numbers are astronomically better than last year's pass defense which rated next-to-last in the Big Ten and allowed 268 yards through the air per contest.
On the year, Apple has made 29 tackles, has two interceptions and six pass break-ups for the Buckeyes, while also scoring a touchdown on a fumble return against Rutgers.
But without that redshirt campaign a year ago — a season Apple said he spent watching and learning from guys like first-round NFL Draft selection Bradley Roby — would he be the key contributor he is today?
“I don’t think so," he said. "I think I needed to have time to sit and watch guys and really learn from them to be successful this year.”