After spending his first two collegiate seasons at Georgia Military College following graduation from Adairsville High in 2015, DeAndre Applin finally got the opportunity to play Division-I football last fall.
All Applin did was help Georgia State put together the best season in the history of the program, which started in 2010 and moved to the FBS level in 2013.
He wasn’t the most important player for the Panthers, but Applin played in all 12 and made 46 tackles from his safety position for a defense that allowed more than 35 points just twice.
Applin started the opener against Tennessee State, and he was super amped-up in his first D-I game.
“I had first-game jitters,” he said. “I was tired the first four plays, probably because I was going a little bit harder than what I would regularly do in practice. It was the first game and the adrenaline rush was on, people are watching. After my second wind kicked in, I settled in.”
After that initial bump in the road, Applin felt as though he settled in pretty well. There were, obviously, going to be some differences between the JUCO game and those played in the Sun Belt Conference.
There wasn’t a major physical difference between the players, Applin said. Mental fortitude became a deciding factor, and Applin used his high football IQ to keep up with the faster pace.
“The players are just as big, just as fast [and] just as strong at this level,” Applin said. “At the Division-I level, I feel like players are a lot more disciplined, they don’t mess up on simple things like they would in JUCO. The playbook is a lot more technical. You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time, or the coaching staff will expose you up top in the booth.
“The game speed, some plays you could probably take off in JUCO. … If you jog to the ball at this level, it’s going to be shown and it’s going to be exposed, immediately. You really have to work on your endurance, because the game speed is just a whole lot faster and we can’t have anybody lagging on any type of play.”
Based on the Panthers’ current depth chart, Applin looks set to start this season, giving Bartow County a probable starter on both sides of the ball for Georgia State with Cass graduate Lucas Johnson slotted in at right tackle.
Both are seniors who will look to repeat the success of the 2017 team. Last year, the Panthers set a program record with seven wins, including a first-ever bowl victory in the AutoNation Cure Bowl in Orlando, Florida.
“Winning is always a great experience,” Applin said of the bowl win. “Just to actually do it, the first time in program history, to say you’re the first team that did it is also a big accomplishment.
“It’s a feeling of a lifetime. It’s really hard to explain. It’s just something you’ve got to be there to witness how it feels. It’s really a blessing to make it to a bowl game and actually win the bowl game.”
That level of unprecedented success brings higher expectations and increased confidence — two things that could potentially derail the 2018 campaign.
As great as it is to improve the stature of the program, the key, in Applin’s eyes, is to not let overconfidence creep into the locker room.
“At the same time, we want to stay humble,” Applin said of how to approach the season. “We don’t want to go into the season too arrogant or too cocky, whatever word you want to say. We’re really grinding hard.
“These seniors want to go out with a bang like last year’s seniors. That’s most definitely our goal, but I think our goals are a little higher than they were last year. We exceeded the expectations last year a lot. Now, that we see we’re capable of doing it, hopefully, that makes the drive stronger.”
Applin’s drive appears to be extremely high. Despite missing most of spring practices with a broken thumb, he believes that he’s well ahead of where he was last year.
“The two days I was out there, I felt really comfortable,” Applin said. “I felt like I was a lot more advanced than I was the previous year. I made a whole lot more plays in those two days than I probably did last spring, when I first came in.”
After making it back from injury and spending the summer getting stronger and more agile, Applin is looking forward to his final college season.
It hasn’t been the straight-line trajectory he probably expected when he was a Tiger dreaming of playing at the next level, but Applin trusts the process. Now, he’s just hoping to go out with a bang.
“It’s indescribable, words can’t describe it,” Applin said of how he feels looking ahead to the fall. “I’m just really excited to see what God has planned out for me and what I have planned out for myself. I just want to see how all this work that’s been going on, all the hours of working out … I’m just ready for it all to pay off for me and also the team.”