Penn State Football

Penn State safety Troy Apke’s long path to Fiesta Bowl started with a coach who saw offensive potential

Penn State safety Troy Apke wasn’t a big fan of defense at first in high school. But the position grew on him — and it fit him perfectly in Happy Valley.
Penn State safety Troy Apke wasn’t a big fan of defense at first in high school. But the position grew on him — and it fit him perfectly in Happy Valley. Centre Daily Times, file

Penn State safety Troy Apke couldn’t have envisioned this ending back in high school.

Back in 2012, before Mt. Lebanon coach Mike Melnyk even committed Troy Apke’s name to memory, he knew Apke was going to thrive in his spread offense — after watching his speed, size and ball skills in just one practice. Apke went on to rewrite the Mt. Lebanon record books in receiving.

But Melnyk saw something else inside Apke, and he told his two-way player not to be surprised if the Nittany Lions utilized those skills on defense.

Five years later, Melnyk has proven to be the blue-and-white version of Nostradamus. Even if Apke wasn’t sure where his career was going back then, he’s had clarity for the past few seasons. The former high school receiver has played in 43 career games on defense and has started 14 at safety.

Now, he has just one game left — on Dec. 30 in the Fiesta Bowl, when his Nittany Lions take on Washington.

“He’s a guy that I talk about with my team because Troy — I kind of laugh — wanted nothing to do with defense until his senior year and then became an outstanding safety,” Melnyk said. “So I use him as an example to our kids about don’t pigeonhole yourself as an offensive kid or defensive kid. Just be a football player and embrace every opportunity you get because you don’t know where you’re going to excel.”

Apke was a crucial part of Penn State’s defense this regular season, finishing fourth on the team with 52 tackles to go with one interception. Even though he didn’t see this coming initially, Apke and his current position always seemed as if they were in the cards in Happy Valley.

He didn’t wait long to move from offense to defense in college. Nittany Lions wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton remembers Apke spending time at receiver for “a hot minute.” Apke went through a freshman season workout with the rest of the receivers and position coach Josh Gattis, but Hamilton said he didn’t even make it through the first practice. He was almost immediately moved to safety.

Turns out Melnyk wasn’t the only one that saw those defensive flashes.

Apke’s teammates describe him as a smart player who communicates well from his position in the secondary. They talk about the speed of the former track star who captured the WPIAL’s 100-meter title during his senior year of high school. And how his blue-collar work ethic has paid dividends for the team defense.

“I love Trap. He always comes into Lasch with a smile on his face,” Hamilton said. “He loves working. He loves, basically, competing. Me and him competed all training camp and all season long. We’ve been doing this for years now. Trap’s a great competitor, a great football player.”

Apke didn’t play safety until his senior year of high school. He saw himself as an offensive player. But, after building his strength in the weight room, he embraced his new position.

The same speed and size that made him an explosive threat at receiver translated to the defensive side of the ball. Apke became a big-hitting safety who could cover ground with ease in the secondary.

In Mt. Lebanon’s final game of the regular season that year against Upper St. Clair, Melnyk was offered a glimpse of what to expect just three hours east in Beaver Stadium. He watched with pride as Apke made play after play in the backfield.

“He was lighting kids up just past the line of scrimmage,” Melnyk said. “They had no answer. They had nobody to block him, and he was just wrecking shop. All by himself stopping their run game. That’s when I kind of knew that he finally had reached his peak.”

Melnyk is also sure college coaches took note of that type of performance. With Apke’s ability to run and tackle, the Mt. Lebanon coach knew his future might be as a defensive player. That’s why he talked to Apke about that possibility before he left for Penn State.

Now, Apke’s career is coming to a close after earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors from the media this season. He earned the starting job this year and made the most of his opportunity.

And his teammates knew they could rely on him to make plays.

“Troy stepped up in a huge way this year,” Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith said. “He’s been really valuable to our defense and I’m really, really glad to see him play at such a high level.”