JONESBORO — Ryan Aplin turned on his phone following his last class of the day and prepared to make one of the most important calls of his senior year of high school.
Before he could accept the scholarship offer that Eastern Illinois had made to him the day before, a voice mail showed up.
Another quarterback had already committed. The offer was gone.
Luckily for the Aplin, he eventually found a college home at Arkansas State. Luckily for the Red Wolves, Aplin’s drive for perfection helped him develop into the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year last season — with plans on proving he belongs in the discussion as one of the country’s best this season under new coach Gus Malzahn.
"Everything happens for a reason," Aplin said. "Always."
Aplin’s philosophy was put to the test last December following a dream season for Arkansas State. Not long after the Red Wolves put the finishing touches on a 10-2 regular season and Sun Belt championship, coach Hugh Freeze announced he was leaving to take over at Mississippi.
Coaching changes were nothing new to Aplin, who was about to experience his fourth position coach and third offensive system during his time in Jonesboro. More difficult was letting go of Freeze, with whom he had become close during his two seasons at the school, one as the offensive coordinator and the other as head coach.
Aplin didn’t fault Freeze for leaving for what he called a "life-changing opportunity." Still, the departure left Aplin and all of his teammates uncertain about what would follow their appearance in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
"It was sad. It was hard," Aplin said. "It was just tough to see somebody you had grown so close to and somebody who helped you so much leave. It was tough, and at the same time it was kind of hard to celebrate that Sun Belt Conference championship."
The disappointment didn’t last long, not after Malzahn was hired away from his position as offensive coordinator at Auburn — where he helped guide the Tigers and former quarterback Cam Newton to the national championship a year earlier.
Aplin, who was accustomed to running an up-tempo spread offense under Freeze, couldn’t have asked for anything more than Malzahn, known for his no-huddle approach.
"I’m sure it’s been tough on him, being a senior and having to learn yet another system," Malzahn said. "Even though coach Freeze’s offense and this offense have some similarities, there are also differences.
"He’s handled it great and been a champ."
Aplin and Malzahn’s system, developed out of the single-wing and with the intent of making full use of a quarterback’s running ability, seem like a tailor-made fit. Aplin threw for 3,588 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, and he also made the most of his scrambling ability — rushing for 588 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The transition during spring practice didn’t come without its pitfalls, however. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said it was made easier by the talent, study habits and humility of Aplin — who was eager to improve his footwork and reduce the 16 interceptions he threw last season.
"From Day 1, it’s never been, ‘Well, this is how we did it last year,’" Lashlee said. "He has bought into everything we’re doing and he’s just really embraced it. Never once have I felt like he hadn’t totally bought into what we’re doing, and at the same time, he hasn’t had the attitude of ‘I was the Player of the Year last year.’"
Aplin’s team-first attitude was developed during the difficult high school recruiting process, when he was often overlooked because of his 6-foot-1, 205-pound frame. His size didn’t fit the mold of a top college quarterback, but his competitiveness did.
He still recalls in detail the high school all-star game where Arkansas State discovered him, which was following the disappointment of Eastern Illinois pulling his scholarship offer. Aplin was a part of a team made up of lightly recruited players, facing off against a team that included several Florida State commitments as well as future Clemson standout and current Tennessee Titan Jamie Harper.
Aplin’s team won, spiking the Red Wolves’ interest and leading to a career that’s even surprised Aplin to some extent.
"Yes, but there’s always room for improvement," Aplin said. "It’s hard to be satisfied. You don’t ever want to be complacent."
Lashlee said he realizes some people still look at Aplin and question how his size might translate to the NFL.
"If he was just walking down the street," he said, "you wouldn’t think, ‘That’s a big-time Division-I athlete.’"
But he’s quick to point out that New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (6-foot, 209 pounds) is smaller than Aplin, who Lashlee expects to have a similar chance in the NFL.
"There’s no way I would bet against him," Lashlee said. "If he gets that opportunity, I have no doubt he’ll make a team. And before it’s all said and done, I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s playing."