There are two basic ways to get from Voorhees, N.J., to Columbus.
One is a flight lasting about 80 minutes, the other is a drive that takes nearly six times longer. But both cover the same distance of roughly 500 miles.
While Eli Apple had other options, that trip is the one he chose to take year in and year out as an Ohio State cornerback hailing from the New Jersey township of just under 30,000. Even though Apple is just a redshirt-freshman spending his second year in Columbus, he’s been making that same trip for years.
“I’ve been here, going to camps since I was in seventh grade,” Apple said Wednesday of his connection with Columbus and OSU.
Coming out of Eastern High School, Apple was a five-star recruit, according to ESPN, and rated the 11th best overall prospect in the 2013 edition of the ESPN 300. That put him 32 spots ahead of the next closest OSU commit — fellow redshirt-freshman cornerback Gareon Conley — and ahead of all but two other cornerbacks in the class.
There are 14 offers listed on his ESPN recruiting profile — a number that was likely much higher in actuality — but for Apple, just two of those schools stood out: OSU and Notre Dame.
The Scarlet and Gray may have stolen his heart years ago, or at least that’s what his coach Urban Meyer seems to think.
“He’s a Buckeye,” Meyer said of Apple on Wednesday. “(Former OSU cornerbacks coach) Taver Johnson recruited him. He had his hand up, wanted to be a Buckeye from way back then.”
Based on an Instagram post to his account, @eliapple13, the first-year OSU starter has had a definite connection with the Buckeyes for years. Just the fourth picture he ever posted on the social networking site was a photo of him with former OSU coach Jim Tressel at a camp in Columbus in 2007. At the time, Apple was years away from making a sure college decision, but he was already seen grinning while sporting a scarlet “Ohio State Football Camp” t-shirt.
But old pictures and coach’s musings aside, Apple said OSU wasn’t necessarily the only place he could have ended up.
“It came down to Ohio State and Notre Dame,” he said.
His reasoning for eventually picking the Ohio Stadium turf over South Bend, Ind., was simple: he “felt more comfortable here.”
“I just really created a bond with the coaches here, (cornerbacks coach Kerry) Coombs, everybody I liked a lot and everything they stand for, I wanted to be a part of,” Apple said.
Whatever the reasoning for choosing OSU, Apple might very well have expected to be a key contributor as a true freshman, considering his status as one of the top recruits in the nation. But instead of breaking his way into the lineup early, Apple found himself not only firmly on the bench, but out of the picture during his first season with the Buckeyes.
It’s never part of the plan for a five-star recruit to redshirt, but that’s exactly what Apple did last year. But after former OSU cornerback Bradley Roby decided to forgo another season with the Buckeyes for a career in the NFL, Apple and Conley found themselves in a battle for a starting job fresh off of sitting out an entire season.
According to the Buckeyes’ depth chart released before the season opener against Navy, neither player had separated himself from the other, but it was Apple who stepped onto the turf at M&T Bank Stadium for the Buckeyes’ first defensive snap of the season.
And he’s started every game since.
While Meyer said there were certainly jitters before that first start and bigger issues a year ago, he added Apple has proved he is ready to make an impact.
“You don’t see the wide eyes you saw the first game,” the third-year OSU coach said. “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 has found ways to shine at times, but his play has been up and down throughout the season. With the occasional coverage lapse aside, he has found a way to be the only Buckeye to record multiple interceptions this season on top of tallying three pass breakups and 14 total tackles.
As he looks to build on some strong performances this season, Apple is set for a chance to showcase his talents against what is close to a hometown team.
The Buckeyes are scheduled to host Big Ten newcomer Rutgers on Saturday, giving Apple a chance to face off with a team he has some familiarity with going in. But that doesn’t mean he’s putting much extra emphasis on the matchup.
“To me, it’s like any other game,” he said. “I just know a lot more players on this team since I’m from New Jersey. I know a lot of the players on the team so it’s going to be fun competing with them.”
While they didn’t make his cut, Rutgers was a school that Apple could have even ended up at, as he said it was the program that pursued him the most persistently while in high school.
“They probably recruited me harder than any other team,” he said.
But no matter how hard the Scarlet Knights pushed for him, Apple ended up destined for that same 500-mile trip year in and year out.
The matchup between the Buckeyes and the Scarlet Knights is scheduled to kick off at 3:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium.