It is a date hundreds have circled on their calendar, but for only the select few will it be a day of joy and fulfillment.
It is the day of the NFL Draft, where 32 professional teams take a risk on young and extremely talented players from all over the country, hoping to put their program on the right track towards the future.
These college football players cannot wait until that fateful day, however, determining what happens after that date depends on what has happened leading up to that point.
Case and point: Virginia’s Antonio Appleby.
Watching Appleby on the field is kind of like watching a freight train about to leave the station. He has incredible speed and has shown a tenacity for finding the ball and making a play. When he hits you, he might as well yell “timber!”
“I learned when I was first year here you have to leave all out there on the field,” Appleby said. “That fun and that adrenaline just going through that experience is what it’s all about.”
Appleby certainly had some memorable plays throughout his stellar four year career in the orange and blue. Appleby played in 48 games over his career, amassing 233 career tackles including a career high 78 in his senior year despite missing two games with an injury.
Appleby’s best performance was a dominating performance against the East Carolina Pirates where he tied a career-high with 11 tackles (before breaking that mark a month later against Wake Forest).
Appleby showed his versatility by playing well in both the pass and the rush, creating havoc in the backfield and helping turnaround his team. After starting the season 1-3, the Virginia Cavaliers boasted a perfect record in October and even finished the month with the lead in the ACC Coastal Division.
“I want to continue to improve in the passing game, working on my foot work so that I can be effective out there,” Appleby said. “That’s what I have been working on since the off-season started.”
In other words, Appleby is fully aware that there is more work to be done for his dream to come true.
“I know that I have to stay in shape right now and continue using the work ethic that got me to where I am now,” Appleby said.
Virginia football is becoming accustomed to hearing its players called on NFL Draft weekend. In the past two years alone, the Cavaliers have heard D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Chris Long and Branden Albert go in the first 15 picks.
In all, 25 former Cavaliers are currently listed on NFL rosters and Appleby hopes to see his name appear on that list very soon.
“In college, you have to balance so many things but in the NFL it’s football all the time,” Appleby said. “It’s hard and yet I’m really looking forward to it.”
This year’s cream of the Virginia’s crop begins with stalwart offensive lineman Eugene Monroe expected to be taken early and linebacker Clint Sintim projected to fall somewhere in the late first or early second round.
Appleby knows he may have to wait around to hear his name, but whoever gives him the opportunity will not be disappointed. On March 18, Virginia had its annual pro day where scouts from all over the NFL come to see what Coach Al Groh and company have to share to the professional world.
These drills are nothing new for Sintim and Monroe, but since Appleby was not at the NFL Combine he knows that this is his chance to show everyone just how much his hard work has paid off.
Virginia has turned itself into “Linebacker U” with Groh at the helm because the Cavaliers run a 3-4 defense. This scheme helps the linebackers shine and forces them to be the key play-makers on the team. It is something Appleby has thrived in finishing second on the team in tackles and tackles for loss.
Ideally Appleby would love to stay in that system but he recognizes that seeing the 3-4 in the NFL is rare.
“Obviously I would feel more comfortable in a 3-4 because it’s what I am used to,” Appleby said. “If I were in the 4-3 I would want to be that strong inside linebacker because that’s where I would be most effective. I know it’s very similar to what we’re running now so we’ll see.”
Appleby has seen his share of highlights and lowlights while at Virginia. He saw his defense shutdown Miami in their final regular season game ever at the Orange Bowl en route to a Gator Bowl appearance.
He also saw his team give up 31 points to Duke in his senior year.
He has also seen a fair amount of turnover, having had three different defensive coordinators in four years at Virginia.
That much turmoil could cause some difficult transitions, but it also makes for a great learning experience.
“I definitely think it’s an advantage [having three coordinators],” Appleby said. “All of them obviously had their own strengths and weaknesses. They all had different personalities but I just did my best to learn what I could from each of them.”
Appleby clearly had good teachers. Al Golden, his first coordinator, is the head coach at Temple University who helped take a team that had won zero games the past two years to its most wins since 1990 last season.
Mike London is now the head coach of the Richmond Spiders who just helped his alma mater take home the FCS trophy, the first national championship in school history.
Bob Pruett, was the former head football coach of Marshall University and brings years of experience and expertise.
In all, Appleby is wiser for all the highs and lows he experienced at Virginia. He has learned to withstand the hard times and not waste the good ones.
“You come in here as an 18-year-old and you just grow so much as a person,” Appleby said. “[Being able to] just going out there in practice every day with your teammates practicing, giving it all out on the field. You come in a boy and you leave as man, that’s what I’ll remember.”
Virginia fans will certainly remember Appleby as well, making strides each and every year helping make the “Orange Crush” defense one of the perennial best in the country. He may not have had the publicity of a Sintim, but he showed a desire to get better and the results are clearly being shown on a bench press in Charlottesville.
The senior linebacker will leave Virginia with a degree, a dream and a dash of humility. He knows there is challenge ahead but all he can do is do what he always does; face it head on.
‘Hoo could ask for anything more?
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