GAINESVILLE — Austin Appleby arrived at the BCS championship game in January 2007 as an Ohio State fan, a born-and-bred Buckeye from North Canton.
Four quarters later, after Tim Tebow, then a freshman backup, and Florida destroyed his Buckeyes 41-14, Appleby switched allegiances and began a winding path that could decide whether the Gators defend their SEC East crown.
"This 15 guy, he left an impact on me," Appleby said. "And the more I've learned about him, the more that I've wanted to be like him."
Almost a decade later, Appleby will finally get a chance to play like him.
No. 19 Florida officially ruled starting quarterback Luke Del Rio out with a knee injury for this week's pivotal rivalry game against Tennessee (and perhaps beyond). Monday's announcement, while not a surprise, formally paves the way for Appleby to become UF's 10th starter at quarterback since his idol left for the 2010 NFL draft.
Aside from similar frames and jersey numbers — Appleby wore Tebow's No. 15 in high school — the two don't seem to have much in common.
While Tebow arrived at UF as a five-star recruit, Appleby took a more indirect, unheralded route. He was a three-star prospect in high school who fielded mostly MAC offers before signing with Purdue.
Appleby considered MAC schools again in the offseason when he decided to leave the Boilermakers as a graduate transfer. Other programs offered guarantees of playing time, but he wanted to earn his shot at Tebow's old school.
He'll get that chance, at least for this week; coach Jim McElwain wouldn't elaborate on the severity of Del Rio's injury Monday, nor would he confirm a two- to four-week timetable for Del Rio's return.
"Everything that happened at Purdue, in my opinion, the good, bad and indifferent, has prepared me for right now," Appleby said. "I've learned what it means when I have to go into a game and win a shootout. I've also learned what it's like when you try to cover too many people and you make mistakes."
To have a chance at returning to the SEC title game — and topping the No. 14 Volunteers for the 12th year in a row — UF must hope Appleby has learned from those mistakes.
Appleby didn't put up great numbers at Purdue. He completed 55 percent of his passes with as many touchdown passes (19) as interceptions in 17 games (11 starts). But his supporting cast at UF is unquestionably better than at Purdue, which went 12-37 over his four seasons.
During 2014, when he played in 10 games, the Boilermakers gave up 32 points per game and had a mediocre run game. That's a drastic change from what he'll have Saturday; no defense in the country has allowed fewer yards or points than UF, which also boasts the SEC's No. 4 rushing attack. The Gators probably won't have to ask Appleby to win games — just avoid losing them.
"We feel extremely comfortable with what he can do," safety Marcus Maye said. "It's not like this is his first game or his first start or anything like that."
Yet Appleby has never experienced a rivalry like this. When he played at Minnesota and Nebraska in 2014, opposing fans didn't set up an internet fundraising account for his funeral, as Vols fans did over the weekend. ESPN's College GameDay will be in Knoxville, along with a crowd of more than 100,000 that will be larger than any he has ever faced.
"This ought to be fun for him," McElwain said. "He's been in Big Ten stadiums. Now he gets to go to a real fun place to play in the SEC. The reason you come to Florida is to play in games like that."
And to try to fill the still-empty shoes left by your childhood idol.
INJURY UPDATES: Standout receiver Antonio Callaway is still "hurting pretty good" from a quadriceps injury and is questionable this week, McElwain said. The injury sidelined Callaway last week against North Texas. … McElwain sounded more optimistic that four-star freshman receiver Tyrie Cleveland could return from a hamstring injury. … True freshman Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks were listed as equals on the depth chart behind Appleby, but Trask is more likely to be the backup.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.