ALLEN PARK, Mich. — For two players who grew up a time zone apart, played in different college conferences and different NFL divisions and who are heading into their second and third pro seasons, respectively, Kenny Golladay and Eli Apple have seen quite a bit of each other these past few years.
Apple and Ohio State got the upper hand when they met Golladay and Northern Illinois in 2015 in a terrific matchup at The Horseshoe. But Golladay, a second-year wide receiver for the Detroit Lions, might be gaining back the upper hand ever since.
Golladay's Lions beat Apple and the New York Giants in Week 2 last season, sending the Giants to an 0-2 start. Although Golladay, a fourth-round pick a year ago, was quiet that night and wasn't matched up with Apple all that much in the game, he was witness to Apple struggling as he tried to replace an injured Janoris Jenkins as the Giants' outside cornerback.
On Tuesday and Wednesday this week, they've renewed their budding rivalry — and Golladay has put his best foot forward more than once. The Lions and Giants are meeting for joint practices prior to their meeting in Friday's preseason game, and Golladay has beaten Apple for touchdowns in each practice, both in red-zone work.
The first one came on a post pattern on Tuesday where Golladay skied over Apple and caught the pass from Lions QB Matthew Stafford in front of Giants safety Curtis Riley. Then on Wednesday, Golladay hauled in a pretty fade pass from Stafford in the end zone, again beating Apple — a former first-round pick who has had a rocky start to his career — for an acrobatic score.
Apple was impressed with the young receiver's growth since that first matchup in college to now.
"I love Kenny," Apple said. "Kenny is a great receiver — long, fast."
And what's the biggest difference between Golladay then and now?
"He's a lot smarter, and he's playing with a great quarterback now," Apple said. "He's definitely a challenge [to cover]."
Apple said that Ohio State's win over NIU was "a great matchup," but he clearly thinks that Golladay is in better hands with Stafford than with former Huskies QB Drew Hare, who was 14-of-31 passing for 80 yards and two picks that day. Apple victimized him early in the game on an INT thrown right to him. Golladay (three catches, 19 yards) was held in check, but nearly hauled in a 33-yard catch on the sideline and was close to catching a TD.
Despite the losing that game, Golladay — in his third game after transferring from North Dakota — said it was an experience he'll remember.
"Well, first off, that game was a lot of fun," he said. "They were just coming off a national championship. ... I mean, the crowd was packed down in the Horseshoe. It was just an experience for me. I was in my second year at NIU. So that was my first time playing in a stadium like that. It was a packed house. Just a good experience and a good game."
Now Golladay has experienced the NFL following a promising rookie season, albeit one that was cut short by a few soft-tissue injuries. Following a two-TD debut in his first NFL game, Golladay suffered a hamstring injury in Week 3 last year and missed the next five games. He had to regain his No. 3 WR role behind Marvin Jones and Golden Tate but ended strong with a 54-yard TD and career-high 80 receiving yards in the final game last season.
Golladay now enters this season in what could be a promising opportunity. The Lions let tight end Eric Ebron (53 catches for 574 yards and four TDs on 86 targets) walk in free agency, and the thinking is that Golladay might actually be the beneficiary of those chances.
Lions head coach Matt Patricia believes the second-year wideout has had a good camp and has a great opportunity to make a big leap from Year 1 to Year 2.
“I think he’s had a really good camp," Patricia said Tuesday. "I think he’s really progressed overall. His general understanding of the offense — he’s been able to be in some different positions and then also improve his individual skill set. So his route running, some of his breaks, his ability to play big — which he’s obviously a big wide receiver — be a target in some of those critical situations, has all been great so far in camp.
"I think on the track that he’s on right now, it’s all been real positive.”
Golladay agrees that his absorbing the offensive system has been a big area of focus and what has allowed him to progress.
"First off, just [knowing] the playbook." he said. "I wanted to make sure I honed in on that this offseason and OTAs, all of that before training camp and then dive down deeper into that in training camp. Just so I can play faster, so I want to say I did that.
"Before I can [become a complete receiver] I gotta get this playbook down. I know this is my second year, but I want to make sure I have it down so I can just go out there and play fast."
As far as talking goes, though, Golladay has been quiet, as Wednesday was the first time he spoke to the local media in recent memory. For a player who came in highly confident a year ago, unafraid to talk about his own potential, it has been a stark contrast. Some have said that his injuries last season made him more reticent to speak to the media; others have suggested that the tight-ship of Patricia has put something of a muzzle on his players, not wanting them to say much in front of cameras and microphones.
But Golladay has let his playing do the talking the past two days, suggesting that a breakout season could be in the offing, and he wants everyone to know that he's still having fun doing what he's doing.
"I am always excited," Golladay said with a smile. "I am excited to come out here and practice every day."
Especially when it involves getting the better of a cornerback who once got the better of him back in school.