Aplin makes history
Published: Monday, October 29, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 29, 2012 18:10
As Ryan Aplin reflects upon his career, he suddenly pauses and glances through the window of the Bill Templeton Recruiting Room on the third floor of the Arkansas State football complex, his head cocking slightly as he notices something shifting at the end of Liberty Bank Stadium.
“There's an armadillo over there,” he says.
Sure enough, on the grass by the southern bleachers, an armored, leathery mammal creeps along stealthily, but not stealthily enough to escape Aplin's gaze, perhaps an example of the vision and attention to detail that has helped the fifth-year quarterback become one of the best players in school history.
“He's a fierce competitor, he has a very lively arm and he has experience. Those three factors really make him one of the better quarterbacks in the country,” said ASU head coach Gus Malzahn.“Ryan sees the field extremely well. He can read a defense, he knows exactly what's going on, he makes good decisions. He's extremely confident throwing the football,” says ASU offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Rhett Lashlee.
Beyond Aplin's football acumen and physical prowess is his leadership, a quality that is his best, according to Lashlee.
“He worries about his teammates more than him[self]. He worries about making others around him better more than him[self],” Lashlee says in praise.
Coming out of Fleming Island High School in Jacksonville, Fl., the Tampa native was unheralded as a recruit, earning scholarship offers from FCS and Division II schools while attracting little attention from FBS programs. Steve Roberts, then coach of the Red Wolves, soon gave Ryan his only shot at playing major college football.
After redshirting his first season, Aplin worked his way into the backup role behind senior Corey Leonard, a mainstay at the position for the prior three seasons. Leonard started the first eight games of the season, but against Louisiana-Lafayette he was benched following an interception that lead to an unsportmans like conduct penalty.
Aplin, who until then had attempted only seven passes that season, was called upon to replace him, completing eight of 14 attempts for 147 yards while leading a furious comeback from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter. The Ragin' Cajuns eked out the victory, but the game was a preview of what was to come for the ASU quarterback.
The following week, Aplin started on the road in a loss to Florida International. Leonard then resumed control of the quarterback spot against Middle Tennessee State, but an early injury thrust Aplin right back under center, where he stayed for the remaining two games of the season.
“There are things that you can't get with practice reps, so it was definitely helpful to get that experience” in preparation for being the full-time starter the following season, he explains.
In the offseason, Roberts fired offensive coordinator Doug Rouse and hired former Memphis coordinator Clay Helton, but Helton soon departed for Southern California. Left with little time before the beginning of spring practice to find a replacement, Roberts turned to Lambuth head coach Hugh Freeze.
Freeze came in and quickly replaced Rouse's pro-style offense with a spread attack not unlike the one Aplin ran in high school. Aplin says he struggled to learn how to play under center, and the switch to playing almost exclusively out of the shotgun proved immensely beneficial to his development.
That season, Aplin set single-season school records for total offense, passing yards, and passing touchdowns on his way to three Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week selections and honors as the first-team All-Sun Belt quarterback. He also established himself as a lethal runner capable of forcing opposing coaches to abandon their defensive gameplans.
However, ASU limped to a 4-8 record for the second consecutive year, losing seven games by seven points or less. Roberts resigned, and athletic director Dean Lee named Freeze as Roberts' successor.
Freeze spent 13 seasons as a high school coach, but other than three years as tight end coach and recruiting coordinator under Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss, he had no FBS experience.
But the Red Wolves responded to his personal warmth and demanding coaching style, sweeping the Sun Belt on route to their first outright conference title and a ten-win season, the school's first winning season as an FBS program.
Much of this can be contributed to Aplin, who threw for over 3,500 yards and 19 touchdowns and bolted for 588 yards and ten touchdowns on the ground. He was named the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year.
But Aplin wasn't predestined to be the Red Wolves' starter. He missed spring practice with a shoulder injury, and redshirt freshman Phillip Butterfield took virtually every first-team snap.
In the fall, Aplin returned and the two scrapped for the starting role. Butterfield proved dangerous enough to demand his own offensive packages, but Aplin emerged as the full-time starter.
According to Aplin, Freeze promoted a sense of brotherhood and camaraderie among the team by doing things outside of football, such as team barbeques.
The biggest factor in the turn-around was winning on the road, something the Red Wolves had struggled mightily with the prior few seasons. Aplin reveals that playing on the road is about “creating your own atmosphere” – that is, finding your own energy and motivation regardless of the opponent's home-field advantage.
With Freeze at the helm, the excitement surrounding the program was palpable. But winning at a school like ASU inevitably draws the gaze of larger predators, and whispers of a head-coaching offer from Ole Miss soon reverberated through Jonesboro as the season came to a close.