GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Austin Appleby’s college football debut came in 2013 against Iowa, as a redshirt freshman quarterback at Purdue.
And coincidentally, his final collegiate game will come against Iowa as well, as a fifth-year senior for Florida in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2 in Tampa, Fla.
So much has transpired between those bookend games against the Hawkeyes.
He traded the starting job back and forth over his last two seasons at Purdue and did the same in this, his lone season at Florida. He received plenty of criticism this fall from a weathered fan base with little patience remaining for the most demanding position in sports, delivered some highlights along the way, contributed his share of mistakes and all told ended up playing far more than anyone in Gainesville could have imagined.
All the while seeming to enjoy every moment of it, despite whatever the outside perspective may be.
“I try to stay out of the media the best I can. I know you guys do a great job, but I try not to read it,” Appleby said after the Gators’ first bowl practice a week and a half ago. “But we know what goes on in this building. I get coached hard every single day. I know the things that I do well. I know the things I need to work on, so does the rest of this team. The pass game is a reflection not of just me throwing the ball — but it’s protection, it’s receivers being where they need to be. The details of the pass game are so in-depth, at the end of the day what most people see is (just) the ball and where it goes and that’s the end result.”
What most Florida fans see is a position that seven seasons after Tim Tebow left still has no bonafide superstar and will enter yet another offseason with uncertainty as to its future.
The plan for the Gators this fall was not to rely on a graduate transfer quarterback from Purdue, but like most seasons in recent memory for the program, that plan went off script.
Redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio opened the season as the starter, but he got hurt twice while missing a total of 6 games already. That opened the door for Appleby, who has his own perspective on this 2016 campaign.
He had grown up a Gators fan in Northeast Ohio, inspired by Tebow and dreaming of playing for Florida. And after a four-year detour to West Lafayette, Ind., he indeed made it to Gainesville, albeit with no assurance of any playing time.
In the end, he’d play half the season and earn the nod to make one final start in the Outback Bowl.
Ultimately, that’s how he’ll remember this fall.
“It’s a reward for all the hard work. On top of it, it’s his last college experience. I don’t think there’s anybody more happy than Austin,” his father Michael Appleby said looking at this final game. “He has an opportunity to go out and play one more time with his teammates, or as he likes to say, his brothers, and play the game he loves, the game he’s devoted his life to and go out and have some fun. Because in the end it’s a game. …
“If you were asking me a different question, I’d say there’s no regrets. He’s happy where he’s at, he’s happy with how things have worked out.”
One more clash with the Hawkeyes
At the very least, it is certainly interesting how things have worked out.
Appleby only got into one game during his redshirt freshman season at Purdue in 2013, a mid-November clash with Iowa.
He came in late to complete 5-of-6 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown — a 44-yard completion in the final minute.
“I was a redshirt freshman and my head was spinning because it was the first time being out there,” he said, reflecting back on that debut. “I found a way to punch one in and threw my first touchdown in that game, so it’s definitely a special memory.”
Appleby played minimally against the Hawkeyes as a sophomore, but he had another memorable performance against them last fall with Purdue.
After starting the first three games of the 2015 season, he lost the job to David Blough and didn’t play again until a Week 12 visit to unbeaten No. 6 Iowa. Blough got injured in that game, and Appleby would take over and complete 23-of-40 passes for 259 yards, 1 touchdown and 0 interceptions in a 40-20 loss on a frigid day in Iowa City, with the temperature in the low 20s but feeling even colder.
That’s the game Michael Appleby thinks back to now as his son looks to make one more significant memory against a familiar foe.
“I think it (felt like) 4 degrees or 0 degrees. David Blough went down and Austin was called in early. He was frozen stiff and played very well. I’m very optimistic,” the elder Appleby said.
While some Gators fans clamored to see true freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks get a shot in the bowl game to get a glimpse at the future, Florida coach Jim McElwain opted to stick with Appleby, and he too is optimistic that the veteran quarterback can script a memorable ending to both his collegiate career and the Gators’ up-and-down season.
“Austin’s done a good job since he’s started playing. Obviously there are some throws that he’d like back, but at the same time this late in the year he deserves it,” McElwain said. “You know what, I’m excited for him to go play in this game, another opportunity for him to go help this team win.”
QB No. 9
Again, until Florida finds its next star quarterback, everything will continue to harken back to Tebow.
The Gators have now used nine different starting quarterbacks in the seven seasons since Tebow finished up in Gainesville, and the collective struggles at the position have worn on the fan base.
Appleby debuted as Florida’s latest starting quarterback in Week 4 at Tennessee and got off to a terrific start, passing for 213 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in the first half.
But everyone knows how that game with the Vols ended — with a costly interception from Appleby part of a collective second-half collapse — and the fans were quick to sour on the latest placeholder at the position.
After an unimpactful game the next week at Vanderbilt (19-of-28 for 144 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs), Appleby headed back to the bench with Del Rio ready to return from a knee injury. That lasted only three games before Del Rio’s shoulder forced him to the sidelines yet again after his own significant share of struggles.
Appleby has been the guy since, and overall this season he has completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 1,225 yards, 8 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. That included a memorable 98-yard touchdown connection with Tyrie Cleveland that contributed to a momentous 16-10 win at LSU.
The offense has mostly remained mired in molasses, though, as the Gators trudged through one lopsided loss at Florida State before a string of interceptions led to another against Alabama for two straight disappointing defeats entering this bowl finale.
But while the criticism has started first with the quarterback (with the play-calling and offensive line getting their share as well), Appleby again has his own perspective.
After that loss to the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship Game, he candidly noted that one of those three picks was the result of a wide receiver making the wrong route adjustment and another the result of a 50-50 ball in which the defender simply outplayed the receiver. He also passed for 261 yards and 2 touchdowns in that game, accounting for the first offensive touchdowns Alabama had allowed since Oct. 22.
“I think I played well. You’re the most dependent position in all of sports. You know, you’re the guy that gets all the glory when things go great, and you’re the one that gets all the blame when things don’t go well. Right, wrong or indifferent, that’s football and that’s how it goes,” he said.
Michael Appleby, who was recruited to Louisville before ultimately finishing his own collegiate career as a tight end and fullback at Akron, says he is his son’s toughest critic and they break down the quarterback’s play after every game.
As for what anybody else on the outside is saying, his favorite line with Austin is, “They don’t know what they don’t know.” He says that outside criticism hasn’t fazed the quarterback one bit.
“He’s kind of conditioned, trained from day one not to read anything. Which is tough with social media, let’s be honest. Not to respond. Not to engage. It’s all noise. When it’s all said and done, I’m not even sure the team understands what’s going on from that position’s standpoint,” Michael Appleby said. “When it’s all said and done, there are a few coaches and a few players involved with the quarterback that truly understand what’s going on from play to play (at that position).
“I don’t want to say anything negative, but if you didn’t play the position you really don’t know. That’s the way it is. It’s the most difficult position in sport. You get all the glory and all the blame. He knows that and he has skin of leather. … You know, it’s all good. It’s part of being a quarterback at any level.”
Appleby said he hopes to keep playing at the next level after this season, to keep “chasing the dream,” as he puts it.
Who knows what will happen? Who would have thought he’d step in at Florida and be preparing for his seventh start as the Gators head to Tampa this week?
For his part, Appleby said he hasn’t taken much time to reflect.
“I don’t think it’s hit me yet. We kind of had a week off and you kind of get bored and you don’t know what to do with yourself when you don’t have to be in here 18 hours of the day. But no, I don’t really know what I’m going to feel, what I’m going to do when it’s all done,” he said. “I kind of had the emotions on Senior Day, but I was so locked in getting to play my first one (in The Swamp) that I wasn’t even thinking of it being maybe the last one.”
Much like that lone home start in Gainesville against South Carolina, this will be Appleby’s first and only opportunity to play in a bowl game.
While it hasn’t been the smoothest ride at times — his collegiate career in general and this season in particular — it seems he’s nonetheless relished every bit of it.
As he no doubt will Jan. 2 in Tampa.
“He’s had a blast. He loves everything about UF. Everything,” his dad said. “He loves his teammates, his roommates, his coaches, the experience. He’s had a blast. Really, that’s what it’s all about. He’s gotten better. He’s been coached up. He thinks nothing but the world of his coaches and is very blessed and thankful for the opportunity. …
“He’s thankful for every moment and doesn’t take it for granted.”