GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Near the end of Florida’s Pro Day on Tuesday, most eyes turned to quarterback Austin Appleby as he fired off pass after pass in front of a collection of NFL scouts and coaches gathered at the Gators’ indoor practice facility.
This was his one opportunity to sway opinions in the lead-up to the NFL Draft and the subsequent round of undrafted free agent signings.
Appleby, who started seven games for the Gators last season as a graduate transfer from Purdue, felt snubbed that he wasn’t invited to either the Senior Bowl or the NFL Scouting Combine. So Pro Day was his chance to make an impression.
“I think I put my best foot forward,” he said afterward. “I’ve been training for the last three months to get my body in shape to come out here and take my one opportunity, not having a combine, not having a Senior Bowl. I was a little upset about that, I think I deserved that, but at the end of the day you don’t count your reps, you make your reps count. I knew what today was for me.”
Appleby found his opportunity at Florida while twice taking over for injured starter Luke Del Rio, and he went on to complete 60.8 percent of his passes for 1,447 yards, 10 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.
He finished strong in the Gators’ Outback Bowl win over Iowa, shaking off a couple of flukey early interceptions to end up with 222 passing yards and 2 touchdowns in one of his better performances.
His approval rating among the fanbase wasn’t any better than Del Rio’s as the offense mostly struggled all year, with the blame spread between the quarterbacks, offensive line and play-calling. Appleby had some moments, though, with a big first half at Tennessee (albeit followed by a rough second half) and with that 98-yard touchdown connection with Tyrie Cleveland in a momentous win at LSU.
His biggest game of the season, against Alabama for the SEC Championship, reflected his full spectrum of both playmaking ability and inconsistency. He passed for 261 yards and 2 touchdowns against a Crimson Tide defense that hadn’t allowed an offensive touchdown in more than a month. He was also part of 3 interceptions that took the Gators out of the game, though to be fair, one of those picks came on a miscommunication with a receiver and another on a poor effort by another receiver on a 50/50 ball down the sideline.
With a prototypical 6-foot-4 build and a strong arm, Appleby believes he’ll get an opportunity with an NFL team. More to the point, he says he has no doubt he can play at that level.
“I know that there’s going to be a franchise that’s going to be very fortunate to pick me. So whoever that is, we’ll figure it out. I know that I’m an NFL quarterback,” he said.
Appleby explained he had an aggressive passing script Tuesday because he knew he had to stand out and leave an impression — not just play it safe. He says he completed 60-of-60 passes on that script in practice leading up to the showcase while estimating that “3 or 4” passes went incomplete during the actual Pro Day session.
Now comes the waiting game as he hopes at least one scout or coach who watched him throw will pick up the phone and set up a meeting or express interest.
As for it all coming down to Pro Day, Appleby is still disappointed he didn’t get more opportunity in the pre-draft buildup to showcase himself, but he says he’s not dwelling on that.
“I was prepared and ready for the call (about the combine), same with the Senior Bowl stuff. Yeah, I’m a little bit disappointed because I know what I can do, and I want to go against the best of the best. That’s why I came to Florida,” he said. “… With that said, this is the opportunity, make the most of the opportunity. Hopefully these guys were happy with what they saw and they’re going to take another look at the film and we’ll see what happens.”