An ACL tear in high school. Taking a redshirt his first year of college, then sitting the bench for two seasons before winning a starting job his junior year, only to lose it by his senior season.
Quarterback Austin Appleby, who transferred to Florida over the summer, is now taking on his biggest challenge yet, for one of the most important Gators games in years.
Starting QB Luke Del Rio is out due to injury as No. 19 Florida travels to Knoxville on Saturday to take on the No. 15 Volunteers, the first time the rivals have met as two top-20 teams since 2006. Yes, Florida is riding an 11-game win streak over Tennessee, but the Vols are 8-point favorites with a talented roster and high expectations.
So who is Appleby, and what’s his story?
SB Nation had the opportunity to speak exclusively with Austin Appleby’s former high school coach, Don Hertler Jr. Hertler coached at North Canton, Ohio's Hoover High School for 19 seasons, compiling an impressive 136-75 record with 12 playoff appearances. He retired in January of last year.
Hertler played quarterback at the same school himself, under his father. Hoover High developed a reputation for producing prolific passers, such as former Penn State and NFL quarterback Todd Blackledge.
"My dad retired, and then another guy was there 15 years: Ed Glass." Hertler said in a phone interview. "Both those guys were ahead of the game throwing the football back in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and then I got the job 21 years ago. Throwing the football at North Canton Hoover was something that was a great equalizer for us before people were doing much of it."
At Hoover, football is taken pretty seriously.
A lot of that has to do with geography: North Canton lies 10 minutes north of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Appleby grew up in the youth football system in North Canton and was the freshman and junior varsity quarterback for Hoover during his first two years.
"It’s a great area for high school football," Hertler said. "There’s a lot of fan interest. You know that’s where football originated, so it was a very high-pressured area, and a really competitive area for high school football."
By Appleby’s junior year, he earned the varsity starting job and in just seven games threw for over 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. But Appleby suffered a torn ACL during a game against Canton McKinley, just the eighth game of the year.
"Looking back, Hertler recalls, "He did so much to get his knee back. I mean I've never seen a high school kid rehab the way he did and come back as fast as he did. That would be the M.O. with Austin. Nobody is going to physically or mentally outwork him."
Appleby would commit to Purdue in the summer of 2011. He’d finish high school as a team captain and MVP. In both his junior and senior seasons, he was an all-conference, all-county and all-district selection.
During his recruitment, Appleby was listed as a three-star. The summer before his senior year, he was one of the Elite 11’s quarterback finalists, and OhioVarsity.com ranked him as the No. 1 QB in the state.
He would go onto Purdue as planned, but things didn’t quite pan out.
He took a redshirt in 2012, and he played in just two games as a sophomore in 2013. That year, he sat behind fellow former Boilermaker Danny Etling, now the starter at LSU.
The Boilermakers went 2-3 to start 2014 with Etling, but Appleby entered Purdue’s sixth game against Illinois. He would throw for 202 yards and run for two touchdowns in a 38-27 victory. He would go on to start for the remaining seven games. On the season, he completed 52.9 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,449 yards and 10 touchdowns and running for five touchdowns.
"He’s become a better runner than what people realize," said his high school coach. "He ran a lot more at Purdue. He maybe isn't the flashiest runner, but he’s a productive north-and-south runner."
Appleby was able to open 2015 as Purdue’s starter, but threw six interceptions in the first three games, prompting head coach Darrell Hazell to replace him with David Blough. Appleby played two more games after Blough was hurt, but Blough being a sophomore made it pretty clear Appleby needed a change of direction.
In Gainesville, redshirt sophomore Del Rio — whom Appleby is replacing due to an MCL sprain Del Rio suffered last week against North Texas — was already on campus and entrenched in Florida’s system.
Appleby said one of the things that drew him to Gainesville and Florida head coach Jim McElwain was that the starting job was going to be earned, not given.
"A lot of places, I had guarantees," Appleby said via the Florida Times-Union. "‘We’re handing you the keys ... you’re the guy.’ I was told here [Florida] from Day 1, ‘You’re going to have to earn it. At a place like this, you want to earn it. You want to earn your respect. I couldn’t pass it up."
Florida’s chances of making it back to the SEC Championship depend quite heavily on Saturday. But give McElwain credit for getting a guy like Appleby on the roster: someone with game experience, and a pro-style quarterback with some running ability who can fit the system.
"I think it’s a big moment for Florida football." Hertler said.
Pressure will be high on Appleby, but on Tennessee as well.
"More importantly for Austin, I just think he needs to do his job, and rely on the coaching staff to put him in the right situation," Hertler said. "He’ll get them in and out of the right plays, and mentally, there’ll be no problem with that."
"It’s an unfortunate way to get an opportunity, but that’s the sport," said Hertler.
"He's a tough guy; he's mentally tough, and he’ll compete. Again, he's been through a lot in highs and lows in college football, and I'm just really hoping that things come together for him in the next few weeks, and he can help the Gators keep this thing going."