When it comes to cornerbacks, the message emanating from the NFL is loud and clear—bigger is better. The demand for tall, physical cornerbacks has skyrocketed in recent years, and players like Richard Sherman are now the new standard. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Sherman has the height to contest jump balls, the strength to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and the athleticism to defend against the full route tree.
One prospect who checks all of those same boxes? Former Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple.
Apple is a rare athlete, offering true 4.40 speed and fluid athleticism in a 6-foot-1, 199-pound frame. He’s big enough to get physical with NFL receivers, and he makes good use of his long arms to defend passes. A second-team All-Big Ten selection as a redshirt sophomore last season, Apple is a projected first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
STACK recently caught up with Apple at EXOS San Diego to talk about his time at Ohio State, his new last name and who he’s looking forward to guarding in the NFL.
STACK: Was football a big part of your life from an early age?
Eli Apple: I had two older brothers and they were pretty serious about football for a little bit. I was always interested and I always liked playing but I was kinda scared, because I was really little back in the day. I didn’t want to get hit. So it took me awhile to get used to the physical part of the game. When I was little, I was more of a track guy or a soccer guy.
When it came time to choose a college, why did you pick Ohio State?
I was always a fan. I loved guys like Troy Smith and Tedd Ginn, Jr.. They were my favorite players. I remember my dad took me to a camp at Ohio State back in 6th grade, and I just fell in love with the campus. I got to see a lot of good things and I met Jim Tressel, and I actually won an award for best in camp as a quarterback. It was a great experience, and when I got to come back in high school, I loved it again. I just wanted to play college ball there. That was my dream for the longest time.
Do you think the competition at Ohio State made you a better player?
Practicing against guys like Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall and the other receivers there definitely helped me for sure. It helped me with everything in my game. Competition is everything. Practice, to me, was harder than the game. Going against Michael every play, he’s a crazy competitior. Same with Jalin. And they just pushed me to be the best corner I could be. It was tough, we got into a couple fights here and there in practice and things got heated, but looking back, it really helped me out. And I’m sure it helped them out as well.
Who was your toughest match-up in college?
There were a couple guys—the kid from Western Michigan, Corey Davis, I have a lot of respect for his game. Amari Cooper, he was a dog. He was really quick. Aaron Burbridge from Michigan State. There were a lot of guys that really pushed me. We had some great match-ups and I had fun going against them.
How did your game evolve at Ohio State?
I grew mentally. With the game, I was just being more smart, being a little more aware of things. You also grow as a man, being in college for a couple years and being on your own. Looking out for yourself and learning the little things of how to conduct yourself and take care of yourself. I learned a lot being a buckeye.
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You had two years of eligibility left when you decided to declare for the Draft. Why did you feel that now was the right time to come out?
It was a tough decision. I felt like it was a timing thing. When you pray about something and you just feel like you’ve done everything you could for a university and a place, it’s time to leave. I had a lot of talks with my parents, a lot of different people I got advice from. It all came back to leaving and taking my talents somewhere else to pursue my dream.
You grew up with the name Eli Woodard, but before you left for college you changed it to Eli Apple. What’s the story behind that?
My stepdad, Timothy Apple, he’s really been my real dad my whole life. I didn’t know he wasn’t my real dad until like middle school. People said, “Hey, he’s kind of a different color than you. What’s up with that?” I never really thought about it because he was always around, but then my mom talked to me a little bit and told me my biological father just kind of left the family when I was born. I guess I wasn’t really planned like that, so he was a little upset and he left. I’ve never seen him before, I couldn’t tell you what he looks like. So when I came to college, I really wanted to honor my stepdad, so by changing my name I felt like I could honor him. I always wanted to do it and I felt right before college was the time to do it.
What was your relationship with your step-dad like when you were growing up?
He was always there for me. He’s the reason why I love football. He was a big fan, a huge Eagles fan. He used to always talk about football and help me train. He used to push me more than anybody. When I didn’t want to go out and practice or do things, he’d always be the motivational person in my ear, saying “Hey, it’s time to go out and get some work in.” He’s been my best friend, he’s just always been there. I can’t say enough about him. To me, he’s the greatest person ever.
What’s the toughest thing you’ve overcome in your football career so far?
There’ve been a lot of tough things, but probably the toughest was when I had an iron deficiency problem. I was going into my redshirt freshman year, and that was the year I really had to earn a spot. It was tough because I couldn’t really finish workouts the way I wanted to. I couldn’t really finish workouts at all. I used to pass out sometimes. I used to lose to the slowest lineman or the slowest player on the team. It was tough, but when I finally found out the problem, my coaches helped me out. I went to the doctors and took the necessary steps. It was a lot of prayer and a lot of tough nights when I was crying with my mom and I was saying, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m going through something like this. When is it going to be over? When am I going to be back to normal?” Because I really wasn’t. So that was really hard. But to go out and play that season and end up winning the national championship, that was definitely the best ending ever.
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How did you finally figure out that an iron deficiency was the issue?
I didn’t really have any idea at first. I was just like “Wow, I can’t believe I’m this out of shape.” I thought, damn, I must be out of shape and I’m not working hard enough. Then my coach suggested that it might be something else, so I got my blood tested. The doctors saw I had a crazy iron deficiency. I had to take all these different tests like a colonoscopy and stuff. Stuff for old people, it was a little embarrassing. I was 19 years old and I was doing stuff that 85-year-old people do, but it was something I had to go through and I got on medication and it helped a lot.
What’s your favorite football memory?
The national championship is the easiest one to name, but my personal favorite was the Michigan State game in East Lansing a couple years ago. I was hurt—I hurt my hamstring—and I wasn’t even supposed to play in the game. But they kind of threw me back out there and I ended up playing one of the best games of the season and helping the team win. Michigan State was one of those alpha dog teams. The previous year they’d beaten us in the Big Ten Championship. So that was one of those games where we had to prove to everybody—including ourselves—that we could hold up against a physical team like Michigan State. We ended up beating them pretty badly at their own place, and that was just the most fulfilling win.
Are there any NFL players you idolized growing up?
LaDainian Tomlinson was always my favorite. I have a bunch of LT jerseys back at home, and I have a big LT fathead in my room. Charles Woodson was another. Champ Bailey, Darrelle Revis, I can go on forever. I had a lot of guys I idolized and still idolize to this day.
Are there any current players you’re especially excited to line up against?
Yes, there’re a couple guys. Odell Beckham Jr., of course. That’s the receiver everyone kind of wants to go against. He’s very talented with all the one-handed catches he makes and he has cool hair. So that’d be pretty entertaining and pretty fun. Julio Jones, I’ve always thought he’s one of the best. I’m a big fan of him so I’d like to go against him. Antonio Brown is very quick, he’ll be a crazy challenge. So guys like that, the best guys.
If you could go back in time and offer advice to yourself as a high school athlete, what would you say?
Continue to stay focused, and if football is something you’re serious about, make sure you do everything in your power to stay focused. Don’t get caught up in anything and make sure everything you do is focused on getting better. And I think I’ve done that.