All Eli Apple wanted to do was go home.
It was exactly how you expected a newly minted NFL draft pick to spend a Friday night, right? But to hear Annie Apple tell it, it’s all Eli Apple wanted to do. One night earlier, the Ohio State cornerback had been drafted 10th overall by the Giants, had done his interviews, had made his cameo appearance on the NFL draft after-party circuit.
But early Friday afternoon, he’d had a plane to catch with his family, Annie says, with just one thing on his mind. He wanted to be back in Voorhees, N.J., wanted everyone settled back at the house by 8 p.m.
“Because we gotta watch Round 2 of the NFL draft,” Annie says. “He’s not gonna miss that. He was gonna watch the second round . . . because he always does. Because he’s been watching the draft since he was 7.”
So there Apple was on Friday night, sitting in front of the ESPN telecast, watching pick after pick stride across the stage in Chicago.
“He loves the draft,” Annie says. “He just loves football.”
So yes Eli Apple is going to love what comes next, even if his new fan base isn’t exactly in love with him just yet. The Giants didn’t get the player everyone thought they wanted with the 10th pick in last week’s NFL draft, not after the Chicago Bears leapfrogged past them to steal coveted pass-rusher Leonard Floyd.
But when the dust settled, GM Jerry Reese found the perfect consolation prize in Apple, a 20-year-old corner with a name meant for Big Blue (how could he not play alongside Eli Manning in the Big Apple?) and a game driven by years of singular football obsession.
Eli Apple is both next-generation corner and throwback athlete. He’s the prototypical coverman, a long-armed 6-1, 199-pound corner with rare speed (4.40-second 40-yard dash),built to handle today’s massive wideouts, capable of attacking them at the line of scrimmage.
But unlike so many in the NFL, Apple seems almost solely focused on his craft, uninterested in cultivating endorsement opportunities or crashing at Drake’s house. It didn’t bother him one bit when an unnamed scout questioned his culinary skills, or when the Atlanta Falcons dared to ask him about his sexual orientation during an interview.
“It’s all good,” he says. “That’s part of the process, I knew it was going to be crazy. I didn’t think it was going to be, like, this crazy, but now that it’s over, I’m happy. I can’t wait to start playing football.”
Forget the Big Apple spotlight, because Eli Apple has other things on his mind. So focused on football is Apple that Annie admits she’s pushing her son to find something – anything – to do in his spare time, just so he has a little balance in his life.
“He won’t have classes anymore to break up football,” she says. “He’ll only have football. So we said he has to get a hobby. I don’t know. Maybe golf or something.”
Not that everyone will mind Apple’s razor-sharp focus.
“The encouraging thing for all the people in New York is he’s not nearly done; his development is going to continue because he’s very very hungry to do that,” says Kerry Coombs, Apple’s cornerbacks coach at Ohio State. “He’s a guy that has very, very few distractions in his life.”
To hear those close to him tell it, football has always been Apple’s life. The youngest of the five Ohio State players selected in Thursday’s first round spent the last three years constantly texting Coombs with more game film requests. His film study habits were so in-depth that Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett once sheepishly admitted to Annie that Apple was putting him to shame.
“I’m the quarterback,” Barrett told Annie. “But Eli’s watching more film than me.”
Apple was a football junkie by the time he reached Ohio State, fueled by so many days of backyard football with his stepfather, Tim Apple, who’s been in his life since he was 2 years old. Apple was born Eli Woodard, but he changed his name during his senior season at Eastern Regional High in Voorhees, Annie says, to “honor” Tim Apple, her husband.
“It’s almost weird to call him a stepfather,”’ Annie says. “He’s been around forever. That’s Eli’s dad.”
And it was Tim who got Eli into football. From a young age, Tim, an Eagles diehard, would take his son out in the backyard for marathon games of catch, getting Apple hooked on the game.
“He’d be the quarterback and Eli would be the wide receiver,” Annie says. “Workouts, practice, everything – they did it. That’s what nurtured the love of the game for him.”
That affinity for football continued during Apple’s days at Eastern, when he would routinely run extra sprints after practice. And at Ohio State, it blossomed even more.
Few Buckeyes have ever consumed game tape as voraciously as Apple. Ohio State players are given an iPad the moment they step on campus, and the device is routinely loaded with the game plan for the week, as well as game tape of upcoming opponents.
Apple pestered Coombs for even more, asking for cut-ups of top NFL corners such as Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman. Then he’d give his defensive backs coach his thoughts on what he saw.
“He would text me: Can you get this,” Coombs recalls. “There would be lots of conversations about different things that he was watching and ways to get better . . . When other kids might be spending time playing video games or doing something else, Eli’s watching film. He would always have it (his iPad) with him. He would ask for more film.
“He would study NFL corners, big corners like himself. He would study opponents. It’s a year-round process for Eli.”
That process produced impressive results. Eli arrived at Ohio State as a quiet, spindly true freshman in 2013, but by last season, he’d emerged as one of the college game’s finest pure covermen. While he made just one interception in 2015 as a redshirt sophomore, he teamed with Gareon Conley to form a corner tandem that surrendered just 16 completions of 10 or more yards all season.
And that’s what Coombs wanted from the pair, he says, scoffing at those who question Apple’s abilities as a playmaker.
“When you’re playing a lot of man-to-man, your eyes are on the man, not the ball,” Coombs says. “If you look for the ball, you’re going to find it – and it’s in the receiver’s hands. Our defense is by nature not designed to lead to a lot of interceptions.”
The Buckeye ‘D’ was designed to keep receivers from getting open. And that’s exactly what Apple did, and exactly what the Giants want; VP of player evaluation Marc Ross says Apple excelled at “shutting people down as opposed to getting interceptions,” and Coombs agrees.
“Very few receivers get off the line clean against Eli,” Coombs adds. “He’s going to disrupt routes. That is absolutely his strength is playing press man-to-man.”
There are indications that the Giants plan to use him in a similar role.
“That is where we like him,” Giants coach Ben McAdoo says. “I think he is a young, combative, physical guy.”
Apple is also part of Coombs’ retooled recruiting pitch to high school prospects. Coombs has had seven defensive backs drafted into the NFL, none more prototypical than Apple.
“I show them (potential recruits) tape of Eli when he was a freshman, and the transition between his first year, and the transition to where he was last year,” Coombs says. “It’s like night and day. And it’s really a credit to him.”
Not that Apple didn’t arrive at Ohio State with plenty of tools. He came to the campus as a top recruit, after four years at Voorhees’ Eastern Regional HS, a program that bills itself as New Jersey’s “Cornerback U,” according to DBs coach Lionel Bolen.
The school counts former New England corner Chris Canty, current Patriots corner Logan Ryan and one-time Penn State star Adam Taliaferro as its alumni, and Apple was as good as any of them, so good that his No. 9 is retired in the rafters at the gymnasium.
“He was real talented,” says Bolen. “Like any young athlete, we just tried to get him to be consistent.”
Not that that was ever a challenge for Bolen. After all, he says, Tim was always around, putting Eli through extra work. After practice, Tim would often pick up Eli, and the two would go train some more at another field.
Then the two would head home, and they’d often study more game tape, says Annie. Tim may have been an Eagles fan, but the athlete he nurtured simply became a “fan of the game.” But Eli was always passionate about players, she says. He never loved one team, but he studied tape of plenty of individual players, breaking them down with his father.
“When he was younger, he really liked Ladainian Tomlinson,” she says. “He loved Marcus Allen. Darrelle Revis. And Malcolm Jenkins who was an Eagle and a Buckeye. Patrick Peterson. He just always has been a fan of the game.”
And about a month ago, before he even had an inkling that he’d land in East Rutherford, he found himself becoming a fan of a certain Odell Beckham Jr. His NFL pre-draft training had wrapped up, and the workouts were over, and Eli found himself bored.
So of course he had to study some tape – and he found himself studying Beckham, who has released a series of workout clips on his own website, odellbeckhamjr13.com, and his Instagram page. As always, Apple discussed the clips with Tim, picking out the nuances of Beckham’s steps, and patterns.
“The last couple of weeks, he’s been watching all the different workouts and stuff that Odell was doing,” Annie says. “(He says) Odell is running routes that haven’t been invented yet.
“And now he gets to practice against him every day.”