UTC’s Gino Appleberry much more than a running back

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / UTC running back Gino Appleberry (8) fights for additional yards during a SoCon game against Wofford in February 2021 at Finley Stadium. Appleberry also plays multiple positions on special teams for the Mocs.

Every weekend, Gino Appleberry treats himself to some lemon pepper chicken.

But it's not just that; it's lemon pepper "extra wet with fried rice and a peach drink on the side."

"I earn it by the way I play," Appleberry said. "I love to eat anything I want and then I can work it off."

(Good to be young, right?)

There's not just one thing that defines a good football game for the 5-foot-8, 200-pound Atlanta native who's in his third season at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. UTC's roster lists running back as his position, and he's done a great job there backing up current starter and two-time All-Southern Conference selection Ailym Ford, as well as former Moc and 2018 All-SoCon pick Tyrell Price, but Appleberry is also a vital part of the kickoff return team and the kickoff and punt coverage teams.

He had a chance to show off his elite speed in last week's 38-20 win at Eastern Illinois, breaking free for a career-long 41-yard rush in the fourth quarter and finishing with 56 yards on nine carries plus one catch for 9 yards. Since transferring from Western Kentucky prior to the 2020 season, Appleberry has 536 total yards and four scores.

With 80 yards on 16 carries this year, Appleberry has done a good job spelling Ford as the Mocs have run out to their first 2-0 record since 2018 going into their homecoming matchup against ASUN opponent North Alabama (1-1) at 6 p.m. Saturday at Finley Stadium. UTC is ranked ninth by Football Championship Subdivision coaches and 10th in the Stats Perform Top 25.

"Gino's role on this team is probably bigger than anybody else's," Mocs coach Rusty Wright said. "He plays so many positions, and he also has a chip on his shoulder to go be a good back, but I don't think he's truly grasped how important he is to this football team because of everything he can do and the versatility that young man gives us in a lot of areas in specials teams and on offense."

Wright, who noted Appleberry's "role keeps expanding," is happy to have him as part of the ground attack with Ford.

"It's pretty good having two guys like that, especially in our league," Wright said. "They can make up for a lot of mistakes up front, and as long as we continue to cover up the football and run hard, we'll be pretty good."

In 13 games over two seasons at Western Kentucky — including one game during a redshirt season in 2019 — Appleberry totaled 221 yards of offense with three touchdown runs. As a freshman in 2018, he totaled 80 yards and scored twice in the Hilltoppers' 37-34 loss to Old Dominion.

With experience at a Football Bowl Subdivision program, it wouldn't have been surprising if Appleberry had arrived in Chattanooga expecting to immediately start, but he said that wasn't the case and that he was simply looking "for a better opportunity to showcase what I can do. A better opportunity than when I was at my last school."

The Mocs have provided that chance to show everything he's capable of — quite literally.

"What I do isn't a small role," said Appleberry, who with a degree in psychology in May and has made appearances on the honor rolls of both the athletic director and the SoCon and the dean's list. "You can play multiple positions and still stay on the field, and that's one of the opportunities that I'm grateful to have, to play multiple positions so I can showcase what I can do.

"I've set my goals to be where my feet are. Of course everybody wants 25 carries, 30 carries a game, but you've got to go through the process to get there, so I'm just being on my feet. I've got high expectations for myself and make do with what I have, so whatever carries I get, I'm going to try my best to get what I can out of it, and usually when that happens, you get more reps. So it's just about being on your feet."

If he does, he'll earn that lemon pepper chicken.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.