Conley and Apple Use Productive Spring to Showcase Talents
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — If your defense is moving to a press coverage look, the importance of having talented cornerbacks cannot be overstated.
That's the case for the Buckeyes this year, and having just one returning starter at cornerback is absolutely a concern. With Bradley Roby off to the NFL, that leaves Doran Grant as the odd man in.
Doran Grant returns an INT fot a TD against Purdue
Photo by Jim Davidson
The concern isn't with Grant, however, it's with whichever cornerback wins the job opposite him. This spring it was Armani Reeves running with the ones, and he performed well enough that with just one week left in spring football cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said that if the Buckeyes were playing a game that week, it would be Reeves starting with Grant.
That doesn't mean the job has been won, however, because a pair of redshirt freshmen cornerbacks made as much noise on the Ohio State defense this past spring as anybody.
Gareon Conley and Eli Apple were impressive throughout the spring, and while they may not have been ready a year ago, they appear to be absolutely ready to go now.
"I think Gareon is a long, athletic, explosive player," explained Coombs.
"I think that his physical strength kept him off the field as much as anything, and the fact that he got here in June and it's a lot to learn for a brand new kid. He's playing everyday, he's getting a ton of reps and he's handling that very well. He's an intelligent football player, he can run really well, and because of his length and arm length, he's a prototypical press corner. So we're excited to see him play. I think he will play a lot of ball this year."
While it may have been physical limitations that brought Conley his redshirt last season, it was the mental side that held Apple back. Apple set his mind to eliminating that problem in the offseason, and he carried it through the spring.
"I definitely grew up mentally," he said.
"Guys like Doran and Coach Coombs really helped me with my mental game, because last year I was thinking too much and I was just making too many mental mistakes. So this year I really wanted to focus on the mental side of the ball and get that down."
The results for both players have been impressive, and either one could end up unseating Reeves for the starter's job. But even if they don't, Coombs said repeatedly that with the style of defense that the Buckeyes are going to play, they will be playing at least four cornerbacks this season.
If Doran Grant's opinion counts for anything, he thinks the youngsters are ready to contribute.
"He's a different type of corner," Grant said of Conley this spring.
"A long guy who is really, really fast who can jump. He's been making a lot of plays. Eli Apple is coming into his own. He's very physical. He's like really bullying some of the number one receivers, so I'm like, 'Okay, I like this.'"
as a true freshman
Photo by Dan Harker
The competition has made both Apple and Conley better, and it's something that has gone beyond just football.
"Everything, for sure," Apple said of their competitions.
"Video games, anything. You name it, we're competing in it."
What about a foot race?
"Gareon's definitely faster, no doubt, but I'm way stronger," he said laughing.
Both players are long cornerbacks who bring different skill sets, but each also fits what this defense will ask them to do. Apple brings the physical nature that press coverage demands, and Conley has the long arms and speed to be able to stay with receivers.
Together they are battling for a job, and giving Kerry Coombs a good look at the possibilities. In doing that, they got better every single day.
"It's great because competition always brings the best out of everybody," Apple admitted.
"Me and Gareon are roommates. We have a great relationship. We're always pushing each other to get better every day. Because whoever is the best guy is going to get the job for sure, and whoever the best guy is needs to be ready. Everybody has to be ready because everybody can play, so we're always pushing each other. It's good competition."
For Apple, despite being one of three players competing for a single spot, all he can worry about is himself, and show his coaches that whatever they ask from him, they will get. While he may have surprised many this spring, he didn't surprise himself.
"The one thing I can control is to come out and play hard and play well," he said.
"That's what I've been doing all spring. I've got great coaches, I've got great corners. We've all played great. Me, Gareon – Gareon especially, so I expected to come out and show out."
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