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Appleby matures into a leader on defense

By Raj Sagar, Athletics Media Relations

Antonio Appleby had a rude awakening on his first day of training camp as a freshman back in the fall of 2005. The highly-coveted recruit was used to being the Goliath on the football field the person everyone avoided.

But on this opening day of camp, he was relegated to a tackling dummy in UVa’s two-spot drill. It was an eye-openeing experience for Appleby.

“Essentially you line up against someone and hit them,” Appleby said of the drill. “I had the pleasure of beginning my career facing off with 300-pound linemen Brandon Albert and Eugene Monroe. In high school, I could overpower most linemen, but here I ended up with nothing but headaches. By the end of the day, I figured out that I would have to approach the game a little differently. To be successful I would have to learn and adapt.”

The 6-foot-4, 250-pound inside linebacker from Virginia Beach, Va., has learned a lot during his UVa tenure. Now a senior, Appleby plans to show just how far he has come in his four years.

Appleby was ready to contribute coming out of high school, but playing behind Ahmad Brooks, there were not a lot of expectations he would see the field. When Brooks had an injury-riddled 2005 season, Appleby got more playing time than expected and performed admirably. He led the team’s true freshmen with 27 tackles and finished the season on a high note with 10 tackles in the Music City Bowl.

“Freshman year helped me gain a lot of perspective and maturity,” Appleby said. “When I first got here, I was very eager to play and disappointed that it didn’t appear I would get a lot of time. When my chance came, I just tried to make the most out of it. I was very fortunate to have an opportunity to contribute as a freshman.”

When Appleby was being recruited by Virginia, it was not certain where exactly on the field he would play. Coming out of high school, he was ranked the No. 9 tight end in the country by and also excelled on the defensive line as well as at linebacker.

“They told me I could play inside or outside linebacker or tight end,” Appleby recalled. “I was very excited because I thought the coaches saw a lot of potential in my athleticism. I wasn’t really concerned with my position, so when we decided I would play inside linebacker, I just took it and ran with it.”

“Antonio was one of those players that played on a need-to-play basis,” Virginia head coach Al Groh said. “He helped the team play better that year by using him, but it probably took him through his sophomore year to get really well versed and comfortable in it.”

“I always thought he was going to be a player,” fellow senior linebacker Clint Sintim said. “He came in here and played well as a true freshman, which not too many people do at the college level.”

As a sophomore at Virginia, Appleby settled into his role on the team and proved to be a workhorse, starting all 12 games. He finished second on the team in tackles with 68.

Last season, Appleby was a mainstay on a Virginia defense that allowed just nine rushing touchdowns fifth fewest nationally. Starting all 13 games, Appleby seemed to never leave the gridiron and was on the field for 768 snaps. He wasted no time in setting the tone for the season, opening the year with a career-high 11 tackles at Wyoming.

“When you first come in, like anybody, you may be able to write it on paper, but in terms of putting it on the field, it takes a while,” said fellow senior linebacker Jon Copper. “He has really grown, especially the last two years, in just understanding the defense very well and where he fits.

“I don’t know that he’s changed much. It’s more that he’s just grown into the position. Antonio is a very, very smart player and he knows and executes the defense very well.”

While he has gained a vast knowledge of UVa’s 3-4 defensive scheme, Appleby knows he still can do more. Vocally, he wants to assert himself as a leader on this team.

“As a kid, I was pretty quiet,” Appleby said. “As the middle man between the defensive line and secondary, I have learned to be a lot more vocal. Communication is key to our defense, and if we all communicate we can be sure we are on the same page.”

At Salem High School in Virginia Beach, Appleby was a multi-sport star. In addition to playing both ways on the football team, Appleby also was a standout on the track team and a bruising forward on the basketball team.

Throughout his career, he was forced to develop and adapt as a player. His grasp of basketball allowed him to easily change positions without any problem and added to his versatility.

“Growing up, basketball was my game,” Appleby said. “I became a pretty versatile player since I had to learn how to play the three, four and five. When I was younger, I was a pretty big kid, so I played down low with my back to the basket. As I got older and everyone got bigger, I had to move out to the perimeter. I wasn’t the best shooter, but I just wanted to use my athleticism to contribute in any way possible.”

In seventh grade, Appleby got his first exposure to football. He still tries to keep the same feeling he got back then.

“Pee wee ball was great,” Appleby said. “I only had one long pass reception my first year playing, but I still had a blast. As a kid, just being on the field is more fun than you can have anywhere else, and I try to approach the game the same way now. My days here at UVa are limited, so I just want to make the most of every play in every game or practice. My teammates make it easy to still truly love the game.”

His experience, coupled with his performance over the last three years, has established Appleby as a role model for the team.

“Antonio has really become a leader for us,” Sintim said. “He is a guy that leads mostly by example, and the work he puts in really rubs off on a lot of the younger guys. He sets the tone by establishing an undying work ethic. In addition to his athletic ability, he really is a student of the game. He has come a long way since his freshman year, and his desire to learn has really taken his game to another level.”

He definitely has come a long way from being a tackling dummy.

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