JONESBORO — Ryan Aplin’s college career has been synonymous with change.
By his play on the football field, one might never know it.
In five years at Arkansas State, Aplin has watched coaches and their philosophies turn over like the turnstiles of Liberty Bank Stadium on a Saturday afternoon. From standing behind center in a run-oriented scheme to a wide-open spread to the hurry-up no-huddle, Aplin has learned more offensive styles than most quarterbacks will in a lifetime.
Aplin has also been successful despite every change — more so than any other quarterback ever at ASU. For Aplin, all the changes over the course of his career have made him better.
“It’s been an adjustment each year, but I definitely think it’s made me better,” Aplin said. “You’re not only adjusting to an offense, but you’re adjusting to new coaches and new personalities. It’s not just stuff on the field you’re adjusting to, either. It’s definitely a tough situation, but I think everyone that’s been here through it all has a done a really good job and we’re a better football team because of it.”
Aplin arrived at Arkansas State in 2008 from Fleming Island High School in Orange Park, Fla., as an underrated project who might not even play. At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, he was undersized and didn’t garner a single offer from an FBS school other than ASU.
It was then that Aplin got his first dose of how things would change from year to year for the rest of his career.
After three years in a system at Fleming Island that only had three running plays — two of which were a quarterback sneak and a Victory formation kneel — Aplin learned an extensive playbook devised by former offensive coordinator Doug Ruse. But by the end of his redshirt freshman season, Ruse was let go and the process started over again.
Over the course of his five years at Arkansas State, similar scenarios have developed due to head coaching changes.
In all, Aplin has played for three different head coaches in three different systems under four different position coaches. A fifth position coach, coordinator Clay Helton, was over Aplin for only a few weeks before he left for another job.
“It’s been tough,” Aplin said. “The first (change) was the toughest. It was an adjustment. It’s not as much about myself, but us adjusting as an offense and getting everyone on the same page. That part hasn’t been easy.”
Despite all the changes, Aplin has somehow managed to make sense of it all and turn that into success on the field. Halfway through his senior season, he already holds more records than any other ASU football player ever.
“Ryan has just gotten better each year,” said defensive backs coach David Gunn, who is the only ASU coach to have been a part of Aplin’s entire college career. “It’s his fire and determination that fuels all that. He’s a young man that wants to be the best that he can possibly be and he’s willing to pay the price to see that happen.”
Aplin blossomed the past two seasons in former coordinator and head coach Hugh Freeze’s spread offense.
As a junior last year, Aplin led the Red Wolves to their first outright Sun Belt Conference title, a 10-3 record and a trip to the GoDaddy.com Bowl. He passed for 3,588 yards and 19 touchdowns, led the team in rushing, broke numerous school and conference records, and was named the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year.
“Last year I was as comfortable as ever,” Aplin said. “I could make a check here or there. If I saw a coverage, I could maybe check a play. I just felt very comfortable in Freeze’s offense.”
Now a senior, Aplin has immersed himself in new ASU coach Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up no-huddle offense.
It’s similar to the style that Freeze took with him to Ole Miss after two years at Arkansas State. It’s also different in many aspects, but Aplin has been able to throw away one playbook and learn the new without a noticeable difference.
“I think he’s done pretty well so far,” ASU offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “It’s a little bit different scheme and the things we ask of our quarterback are a little different. But we’ve got a guy who is a senior that has played in several different systems. There’s going to be some changes and some growing pains that come with that … but I think he’s playing well and will keep getting better the second half of the season.”
The biggest differences in Malzahn’s offense are tempo and terminology.
The pace is much faster, the language has changed and some of the reads are different. And while Malzahn’s offense places a higher priority on running, the styles are similar enough that the transition has gone smoothly for Aplin.
“This transition has been a lot easier than the first one,” Aplin said. “They’re very similar in scheme. There’s obviously going to be different stuff that they have, but they’re very similar. I actually feel like this adjustment has been a lot faster than it was with Coach Freeze.”
Aplin has thrown for 1,388 yards and eight touchdowns through six games this year. He’s completed 61 percent of his passes (119-of-194) and been intercepted just twice.
Compared to last season, Aplin’s passing yardage is slightly down — an obvious sign the offense is placing more emphasis on the running game. However, his touchdowns are up and his interceptions are significantly fewer.
After throwing 16 picks last year, Aplin made it a priority to make better decisions and better passes this season.
“After last year, I really took it hard. I had 16 interceptions and that is just terrible. If we didn’t have the defense that we had, we would have struggled with all the turnovers that I had,” Aplin said. “I just took it to heart. That was something I wanted to work on in the spring. The biggest key for me this year was not hurting the team like that.”
Last Thursday at Florida International, Aplin etched his name in the Sun Belt Conference record book. His 273 yards offense gave him 10,365 yards for his career and moved him to the top of the league’s most productive players ever.
At Arkansas State, Aplin has set 21 single-game, season and career records, among them total offense, passing yards and touchdown passes. He’s in position to break several more before his senior season ends.
“I think he has certainly exceeded expectations,” Gunn said. “There are certain things about Ryan that you are just not able to see and evaluate until he’s actually playing for you. His work ethic, his instincts and his understanding of the game are just second to none.”
Lashlee said it’s Aplin’s ability to absorb what he’s given and translate it to the field that has made him so successful.
“He’s a real fierce competitor. He just loves to compete and that’s the first thing you want to have at that position,” Lashlee said. “He really sees things well and picks things up really well. I think that’s why we haven’t had many issues with the transition. Usually, the first time he gets it, and if he makes a mistake he gets it fixed. He’s got a really good learning curve.”
How well Aplin adapts to Malzahn’s system will play out over the next six games. If the past is any indication, it’s likely there won’t any problem.
The Red Wolves stumbled in the Sun Belt opener against Western Kentucky, but beat preseason favorite Florida International the following week. They can play their way back into contention if they can keep the momentum going.
“I feel like we’re on track,” Aplin said. “There’s still a lot of the season left to play and many things can happen. If we take care of business, I think we’ll be in a good situation at the end.”