GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In an alternate narrative, Austin Appleby could have seen himself as Florida’s quarterback years ago.
He had become a converted Gators fan as a young, aspiring football player in northeast Ohio after watching Tim Tebow and the 2006 team defeat his Ohio State Buckeyes for the national championship.
Appleby later received some recruiting interest from former Florida quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler and attended a camp in Gainesville, all the while building his prospect profile back in Ohio with Tebow’s No. 15 on the back of his high school jersey.
“I’ve dreamed about being a Gator since I was a little kid,” he said earlier this week.
But that storyline is not how reality would unfold at the time.
Reality was that Loeffler would leave Florida when Urban Meyer stepped down as head coach after the 2010 season, and whatever interest the Gators might have had in Appleby then went with him. Reality was a torn ACL for Appleby during his junior season that same year, which tempered recruiting interest in general.
Ultimately, reality was four up and down years at Purdue, playing in a struggling offense while shuffling in and out of the starting lineup as a junior last fall.
And yet, the two narratives — the one that might have been and the one that is — merged this winter.
A day after Purdue’s final game last season, Appleby asked Boilermakers coach Darrell Hazell for his release. It was quickly granted, allowing the quarterback to seek a new home for his final season of eligibility as a graduate transfer, and as if it were meant to be, those Florida Gators he had grown up rooting for just happened to be very much in need of a veteran quarterback.
His roster spot came with no guarantee of playing time, but an injury to starting quarterback Luke Del Rio last week now has Appleby set to start for the No. 19 Gators on Saturday at No. 14 Tennessee in one of the biggest games of the year.
“I told him, I said, ‘Who said dreams don’t come true?’ Because I knew he always wanted to be a Gator,” his father, Michael Appleby said of these past nine months. “It’s pretty interesting the way it happened.”
Who is Austin Appleby?
Florida fans don’t know much about their new quarterback, other than the fact that he started his career at Purdue, joined the program this offseason and lost out to Del Rio in a preseason competition for the starting job.
So those who know Appleby best offered a little more insight and perspective this week.
Don Hertler Jr., the former head football coach at Hoover High School in North Canton, Ohio, remembers Appleby as a very coachable and prepared quarterback, a competitor who could punish teams with his running ability (when healthy) as well as his arm.
And if not for that torn ACL, Hertler suspects the quarterback might have drawn more interest from top-25 programs coming out of high school.
Missing those games late in his junior season limited the tape and highlights he was able to send out to recruiters. Hertler thinks Appleby probably worked himself back from the injury too fast, as well, compounding matters.
Ultimately, Purdue wanted him and, well, it was good to be wanted.
“He was just coming into his own,” Hertler said in a phone interview, referencing the quarterback’s untimely knee injury. “Big kids take a longer time to develop sometimes. He probably came back a little sooner than he really should have, which was his choice. His senior year was not quite as good as any of us wanted, win-loss wise, but that was not because of him. He’s been through a lot of ups and downs is what I’m trying to say, whether it was the injury in high school, he had some ups and downs at Purdue …
“I think coming off the junior year (recruiters) only had a little bit of tape on him. Again, he was going to all those different camps and probably wasn’t quite ready physically to do all that. At that time he really liked the (Purdue) coaches, the offense, and that was the team that really showed the most interest in him. He had other offers, but you want to go where you’re wanted the most, and with the type of style they were playing at the time (it was a good fit).”
Appleby was thrown another unexpected curveball soon thereafter, though.
Hazell took over as head coach after Appleby’s redshirt 2012 season, replacing Danny Hope and the coaching staff that had brought the quarterback to West Lafayette, Ind.
Appleby would nonetheless start 11 games for the Boilermakers and play in 17 overall during the last three seasons. He passed for 2,777 yards during that time, including a few notable performances last fall, but he would finish his career at Purdue with an even mix of 19 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
Looking back now, Appleby says he learned a lot from that experience — lessons he hopes to apply with the Gators now that he’s surrounded by a better supporting cast and a defense that takes plenty of pressure off the Florida offense.
More to the point, he doesn’t feel the quarterback he was at Purdue and the numbers he put up there are representative of what he can bring to the Gators for however long Del Rio is sidelined.
“Everything that happened at Purdue, in my opinion, the good, bad, the indifferent, has prepared me for right now,” Appleby said. “I’ve learned what it means when I have to go into a game and win a shootout. I’ve also learned what it’s like when you try to cover for too many people and you make mistakes. Which is ultimately, I’ve said before, if I could do it all over again I wouldn’t have to go into every game thinking, ‘Oh darn, I’ve got to score 40 for us to have a chance to win.’ You know, me saying that I have to score 40 is the problem. Just got to do my job. Just got to work the offense, trust the coaches’ plan, trust my teammates and just go find the open guy and everything will take care of itself.”
Hertler, who had an accomplished high school coaching career before retiring in early 2015, says he knows Hazell and respects the Purdue coach.
But the situation was what it was.
“(The offense) changed a little bit under Coach Hazell. Like I said, (Appleby) had some ups and downs at Purdue, but all the QBs and the whole program there had some ups and downs. That’s not personal against anybody — that’s just reality,” Hertler said.
Appleby had developed a mentor in former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer through his work at the Elite 11 quarterback camp in 2011. They have remained close since, and along with his father, Hertler and others, Dilfer was there to offer Appleby advice during those ups and downs at Purdue, especially as Appleby and David Blough traded the starting job over the course of last season
“We talked a lot through that,” Dilfer said in a phone interview this week. “It was interesting because David Blough and Danny Etling (another fellow Purdue quarterback during Appleby’s time there) are Elite 11 guys. David and (Austin) had a really neat relationship, as good as you can have for two guys competing. A lot of the counsel (I gave him) wasn’t around whether he was starting or not; it was about how you can be a great teammate in the midst of struggles and on leaning on each other.
“Their relationship was (similar) to what Matthew Hasselbeck and I went through in Seattle. I was able to give him examples of what Matthew and I had gone through in 2001-2004. How if you handle it right how powerful it can be for your team, and if you handle it wrong how destructive it can be.”
That sort of maturity and the intangibles needed for the position are precisely what drew Dilfer to Appleby in the first place, for that matter.
And while Florida fans don’t know all that much about the fifth-year senior as he has attempted all of five passes for the Gators, count Dilfer among his most ardent believers.
Earning a mentor
The Elite 11 camp is an important stage for the country’s top high school quarterbacks to showcase themselves and raise their recruiting profile.
The competition, run by Dilfer and a collection of other coaches and former NFL quarterbacks, invites a group of the top high school prospects from around the country and whittles down the field to the final Elite 11.
Michael Appleby, Austin’s father, recalls that his son was probably at about 80 percent with his knee following the ACL surgery by the time he attended the Elite 11 regional competition in Columbus, Ohio, just a handful of months later. Nonetheless, he’d advance through that stage and on to Malibu, Calif., in July, 2011, to compete as one of 24 quarterbacks vying for that coveted Elite 11 designation.
“We had a decision to make and that was wait like you normally would for the swelling to go down —three, four, five, six weeks — to have surgery or get aggressive,” Michael Appleby said. “We were dealing with three doctors, (from) the Bengals, the Browns and the Buckeyes. We liked Chris Kaeding, the Ohio State Buckeyes doctor, and three days later we were aggressive, went in and took care of it.
“He busted his tail like you wouldn’t believe and (four or five) months later he was competing in the Elite 11 (regional competition), which was unheard of. … He’s never looked back. A lot of tears at that time, a lot of hard work. We had therapists coming to the house and I can tell you mom and dad had to leave because we couldn’t watch the pain he was in, but it was worth it.”
During the first couple days of the main Elite 11 competition that summer, Appleby struggled mightily.
Dilfer explains it better.
“He had really, really struggled. When I say struggled, he had probably had as bad a first two days as we’ve ever seen at the Elite 11, for whatever reason,” Dilfer said. “Most kids when they start off poorly, they shrink, they try to find a hole, they’re embarrassed. They get small. … Austin was the opposite. He got bigger. He took it on. He was frustrated, confused why he was struggling so much, but he didn’t shy away from it. He rose up and said, ‘I’m going to fix it.’ He put in the extra work, he took the coaching and when we started competing at a higher level the best came out of him.
“What stuck with me is that this is a special competitor that is not afraid of taking on (challenges), that is not going to shrink in big moments.”
Appleby would end up as the final selection for the vaunted Elite 11 group — one that also included Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly and former Florida State star Jameis Winston that year.
There is a video on YouTube (see below) with highlights from Appleby’s work at that camp, filled with clips of Dilfer raving about the quarterback’s turnaround and revealing the connection the two built through that process.
Dilfer, who also works as an NFL analyst for ESPN, gives his cell phone number to all the quarterbacks who come through the Elite 11 camp. All of the instructors are available as mentors, for that matter, with Dilfer saying that he usually takes on the role of crisis manager when the kids really need some deep advice.
His connection with Appleby has been a little different than most, though. He estimates they’ve talked about 10 times over the last year, and often not even about football.
“Austin is one of the kids of all the years I’ve probably stayed most connected with and it’s more than football. I’ve tried to mentor him in life as much as football,” Dilfer said. “… Austin’s different. There is something different there. He’s spent time with my family in my home because he was training out here. My wife has gotten to know him, my wife’s gotten to know his parents. For whatever reason life has kind of brought us (together). We have a closer relationship than football.”
And for whatever reason, life has now brought Appleby to this moment, taking over at quarterback for the time being at the school for which he always wanted to play.
Like Florida fans hoping he can keep the Gators undefeated and in the driver’s seat for the SEC East title after this weekend, Dilfer is rooting for Appleby as much as anyone.
“He’s a natural leader,” Dilfer said. “The other kids in the camp back here, and this has happened at Purdue and I know it’s happened at Florida too, they gravitate toward him. He’s very authentic as a leader. He’s not afraid to admit when he’s struggling at something. He’s very unselfish. He just has a lot of really neat qualities. …
“He’s tough, he’ll know the offense, he’ll execute the game plan. … It’s a great challenge. (As the backup), you don’t get all the reps with the first team in training, so I think the expectations shouldn’t be off the charts. But … I think he’ll do a great job.”
Said Hertler, his high school coach: “I think he’s going to show people. I think if he can just hold his own early, get his feet wet early and not try to do too much I think he’s going to surprise some people with what kind of young man (he is) and what kind of quarterback he still has the opportunity to be in college.”
Next man up
Hertler and Michael Appleby were in the stadium Saturday night at The Swamp when Del Rio took a brutal low hit to his planted left leg as he followed through on a pass late in the third quarter against North Texas.
Del Rio reportedly sustained a sprained knee that is not season-ending, though his timeline for return is uncertain. Head coach Jim McElwain has given no formal indications as to the severity of the injury or when he expects him back.
Suddenly, though, Appleby was on the field directing a pair of touchdown drives Saturday night — albeit touchdown drives mostly led by the Gators’ ground attack.
After the game Hertler, Michael Appleby and others gathered together at the quarterback’s place, and it was business as usual despite everything that had transpired that evening.
“First of all, anytime a guy goes down you feel awful. Austin felt awful, we all felt awful,” Hertler said. “Austin took a lot shots the last couple years at Purdue and (had to) get up and keep fighting. It was sad to see Del Rio go down, but that’s why Florida recruited him and that’s why Austin had interest in Florida. That’s why they brought him in, to have more than one guy. He’s been through a lot, he’s seen a lot and I think all those experiences will help him this weekend.”
Said Michael Appleby: “He was normal. It’s not like he shows his emotions on his sleeve or anything. He’s a quarterback. He’s ready. Is he excited? I’m sure he’s excited. I’m his dad, I know when he’s excited, but I don’t think most people can tell. That’s the way you want your quarterback.”
The prevailing wisdom is that Florida will lean on the ground game again Saturday at Tennessee and limit what it asks Appleby to do as a passer, but at some point he’s going to have to make some plays for the Gators.
For his part, he’s more than confident he can deliver.
“I don’t think the game plan’s going to change at all,” Appleby said. “I mean, we’re gonna run the ball, we’re going to set up the play-action pass and get the ball to our guys on the outside. I think I’ve got the element of using my feet if I need to, I think I’m a little bigger, just physically, but the game plan ain’t going to change a whole lot. We’re gonna do what we do. We have our identity as an offense and it doesn’t really matter who’s behind center. We’re going to do what we do. …
“I’d say I know (the offense) as good as I can know it. Every single day, it’s about owning the game plan and knowing your opponent and preparing like a starter. Nothing’s changed this week than it did the last three or even years before that. You prepare the same way. You prepare to be out there, you prepare to have your number called, so when it is, you’re ready for it.”
His Florida teammates have expressed nothing but confidence as well, from the immediate moments after the game Saturday night to their comments this week.
“He’s doing great. He kind of came to us and calmed us down,” senior wide receiver Ahmad Fulwood said. “When your quarterback goes down, everyone is looking to the next guy. And he’s the next man up, and he’s done a real good job of calming us down and knowing he’s got this.”
During his time at Purdue, Appleby made starts on the road in imposing environments like Nebraska in 2014 (18-of-46 passing for 216 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs and 1 rushing TD), Minnesota (16-of-26, 153 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs, 79 rushing yards and 1 TD) and Iowa in 2015 (23-of-40, 259 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT).
“The stadiums are the same. You go in there with an ‘us against the world’ mentality, you trust your teammates, you communicate and you go execute the game plan,” Appleby said. “At the end of the day, it’s all noise. All the pregame stuff is where you’re kind of like, ‘Oh, wow, this is legit.’ But once the game starts, I think if you ask a lot of players they’ll say the same thing, that it all kind of quiets and you lock into your zone.”
McElwain also highlighted Appleby’s experience as a comforting factor heading into this game, while noting that he does do some things differently from Del Rio that the coaches will try to accentuate in the game plan.
Overall, he’s been most pleased by the quarterback’s veteran approach this fall, even after losing out to Del Rio in their preseason competition.
“(I like) his maturity, his love of the game, how he’s really invested in his teammates. But more than that, the preparation piece that he’s put in, even when he wasn’t named the starter,” McElwain said. “This ought to be fun for him. He’s been in Big Ten stadiums. Now he gets to go to a real fun place to play in the SEC. The reason you come to Florida is to play in games like that.”
This is precisely the reason the Gators were interested in bringing the graduate transfer in back in January. Florida hasn’t made it through a full season with one starting quarterback for six straight years now.
And this is precisely why Appleby chose Florida.
He has said he had opportunities at other schools that would have more or less assured him of a starting job this fall, but he wanted to play for the Gators.
For that matter, he’s always wanted to play for the Gators.
And now he has his chance.
“We have a saying in our family — the Lord works in mysterious ways. And like I said, who says dreams don’t come true?” Michael Appleby said. “Sometimes you have to make your dreams happen. He’s in the right place, he’s in a good place and as it turning out he’s in this place for a reason.”