Ohio State football: Freshmen shine for students

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Maybe it was just the coincidence of spring having finally sprung, but Eli Apple suddenly blossomed on the Ohio State practice field yesterday.

With coach Urban Meyer’s third student appreciation day attracting a crowd estimated at 2,500 that often was close to the action at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, Apple rose to the occasion. The redshirt freshman cornerback’s two interceptions and big hit on receiver Jeff Greene were among the highlights of the day — along with a 50-yard run up the middle for a touchdown by freshman running back Curtis Samuel.

“I just saw an opportunity today, and I just really wanted to ball out and show out, for sure,” Apple said.

At the end of practice, Apple had the black stripe removed from his helmet by senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett during a brief full-team huddle. It’s a rite of passage for freshmen, meaning Apple now is a full-fledged Buckeye.

“This kind of day is about momentum for him,” said senior cornerback Doran Grant, who put his arm around Apple to offer congratulations, encouragement and guidance after the ceremony. “It means momentum in his life, momentum on the field. That’s the Eli I was waiting to see break out.”

Apple was expected to have a similar impact last year as an early enrollee with the 2013 recruiting class. He wound up being redshirted. When spring practice started a month ago, he was dealing with a still-not-fully-diagnosed ailment that left him feeling tired. But his energy has returned as his condition continues to be monitored.

“I was a little bit worried, but we’ve got the best doctors here, the best medical staff and training staff, and they really helped me and pushed me,” Apple said. “I’m back firing now. I’m back to 100 percent.”

It helped that students cheered his every big play.

“It definitely juiced me up a little,” Apple said. “As soon as I came out on the field, I just felt the energy of the students and everybody, all eyes on me. I just felt like it was a big day.

“That’s how it’s going to be next week, too (for the spring game on Saturday at Ohio Stadium), so I can’t wait.”

Samuel also is eager to make his first appearance at Ohio Stadium. Like Apple a year ago, Samuel made an early move to college three months ago with the idea of gaining a head start in vying for playing time with the veteran running backs. Like Apple, Samuel had a slow start this spring as he nursed a pulled hamstring.

Meyer sang his praises last week for plays he made on Tuesday in practice. Yesterday, as the offense was about to run a play, Meyer stepped in, talked with coordinator Tom Herman, ordered Samuel into the lineup and called a different play. He stood just behind Samuel as he took a handoff and sprinted straight up the middle on the 50-yard run.

“I know when I went in, coach Meyer said, ‘Just go. Just get that ball and go,’ ” said Samuel, from Brooklyn, N.Y. “I give all the thanks to the offensive linemen and to the receivers for blocking.”

It was uplifting for the starting offensive line, as well, left tackle Taylor Decker said.

“We call those kinds of plays job-shorteners, because if we execute perfectly, one play we’re off, so we’re not breathing heavy, we’re not tired,” Decker said, smiling.

Samuel has had a couple of those in the past few days, “and he’s been having a great spring,” Decker said. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing yet, really, but he just goes hard. He plays hard. That’s fun to see. I know the students had fun seeing it, too.”

tmay@dispatch.com

@TIM_MAYsports

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