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Tuesday, April 16, 2013
WR Apke's success no longer a surprise

By Josh Moyer

Troy Apke (Pittsburgh/Mount Lebanon) reeled in about nine catches his sophomore season, so he hadn't really counted last summer on becoming one of the offense's centerpieces.

His new coach, Mike Melnyk, did.

Melnyk needed to watch just one practice to become convinced. He glanced a few times at those long strides, that quick acceleration, those soft hands and just knew. He swore if someone would've told him last summer that Apke would end up with 1,000-plus yards, his mind wouldn't have held a single doubt. He believed Apke could be a superstar. But, the Penn State commit admitted Monday night, he wasn't so confident.

Melnyk walked over to him after that first practice, put an arm on Apke's shoulder and smiled. He didn't even know Apke's name yet: "Son, you're going to be a star in this offense."

Apke remembered looking back at him: "I was just like, 'Uhhh, OK, this is like the third time I'm meeting you.' "

The confidence of the 6-foot-2, 180-pound wideout grew with every practice and with every time he cradled the ball. This wasn't Apke's old run-first offense where he was only tasked with blocking. This would be a balanced passing attack -- and he was going to be the top wideout with his 4.4 speed.

The soft-spoken athlete, the son of two Pitt alumni, gradually realized he had a strong football future during his junior season. He finished with 54 catches for 1,048 yards and 13 TDs, after all.

"He's just got explosive speed, and it's not track speed -- it's football speed," Melnyk said. "I knew we had to get the ball in his hands and let him run."

Apke would go on to wow plenty of college coaches with his junior season. Penn State, whose camp he attended over the summer, offered him a scholarship in February. And there were plenty of other options, too: Bowling Green, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Minnesota, Pitt and Toledo.

Most assumed the wideout, a shy teenager who prefers to let his play do most of the talking, would follow in his parents' footsteps and head to Pitt, which was just a 20-minute drive from his high school. His father, Steve, was a Panthers linebacker in the 1980s, and his mother was a track star there.

But, Apke said, they left the decision to him. PSU was always one of his top schools. But once he left Penn State's junior day in February, he said the Nittany Lions became the favorite -- and Bill O'Brien quickly won over his parents.

"They talked to us and it just seemed like, with all the sanctions and stuff they had, they were talking about everything Penn State was about -- how they're a family now," Apke said. "That just caught me, and I just like the way they handled it."

Added Melnyk: "Troy was laughing from Saturday because he told me his dad was ready to suit up right there, so Coach O'Brien must've had a good effect on the family."

Apke asked his coach to call the staff before Saturday's visit to discover if a commitment this early would be OK. He reflected on the decision for at least two weeks and felt it was the right time. Melnyk told him that if it felt right, he should just pull the trigger.

On Saturday, he did -- and became the first wideout of Penn State's 2014 class and the fourth overall commitment. And he likely won't forget that time Saturday, when he committed inside O'Brien's office.

Apke was waiting for the right time to tell O'Brien. He sat near his mother, father and teammate Alex Bookser. O'Brien first spoke with the offensive tackle and offered him a scholarship before Apke even said a word.

Then the head coach turned to the wideout and asked him a question.

"After he kind of asked Bookser where he was in his recruitment, he came over to me and asked me where I was," Apke said with a laugh. "And I said, 'Actually, I wanted to tell you I want to commit.'

"He stood up and said,' Wow, that's great,' and shook my hand and smiled."

Apke has obviously come a long way since last summer, when he wasn't so sure about finishing up with 1,000-plus yards. But a lot has changed now; Melnyk and Apke didn't try to pretend otherwise.

Apke's confidence has increased in lock step with his goals. That question of whether Apke can succeed in college has already given way to something else.

Melnyk approached Apke again over the offseason. The two sat across from one another in his classroom and Melnyk asked, "Do you want to play on Sunday some day?" Apke nodded and mouthed yes.

"I'm going to be honest with you," Melnyk told him. "I think you have the potential to do that. I think you're really special."

This time, Apke didn't doubt him.