Ryan Aplin has unique insight into Auburn’s quarterback situation.
Aplin knows all the parties involved — coaches and players — having spent two seasons as a graduate assistant at Auburn before leaving in March to become North Alabama’s receivers coach.
He also knows Malzahn from the other side of the player-coach relationship.
Aplin was the quarterback for an Arkansas State team that went 10-3 in Malzahn’s first season as FBS head coach.
Aplin wasn’t surprised when he saw Auburn went with three quarterbacks in its season-opener against Clemson.
“He’s trying to find out what guys will separate themselves,” Aplin said. “I can’t tell you what his exact thinking is, but to me he’s working to find the guys that give them the best opportunity to win.”
Malzahn has already reversed course from last week’s game plan pledging to focus the offense around starter Sean White and backup John Franklin III.
Whether Auburn’s game plan revolves around two or three quarterbacks, rotating from series-to-series or play-to-play isn’t easy according to Aplin.
“There are challenges to it,” Aplin said. “The quarterback is leader of the offense and you have to be in complete control. You have to take the reigns, but if you have multiple quarterbacks one guy goes out there to lead then another goes out. It can be hard.”
Aplin was part of a two-quarterback rotation as a freshman with senior quarterback Corey Leonard. Leonard received the majority of snaps with Aplin taking over as starter late in the year.
“You don’t get in a rhythm,” Aplin said. “You aren’t getting that constant feel for what defenses are doing. It makes preperation vital. I would go in for two plays and come out, was it ideal? No, but I had a chance to prove myself.”
Aplin puts the responsibility of making the rotation work on the shoulders of the quarterbacks.
“You have to know the defense you are facing — what they do in coverage, their blitz packages,” Aplin said. “You have to stay locked in on the sidelines. You might be only going in for a couple plays at a time, but you have to prepare like you are a starter by taking mental reps on the sidelines and attacking practice. ”
Aplin warns against counting Auburn’s offense down for the count.
It took him until week five or six as a senior to feel comfortable in Malzahn’s offense, and Aplin’s resume at the time was extensive in both experience and production.
“It slowly started clicking for me,” Aplin said. “I think the game against Florida International (34-20 win) was finally when I started to get it down.”
Johnson and White may have multiple years in Malzahn’s system, but neither has the game experience to be considered a veteran.
“It’s a totally different aspect being a starter,” Aplin said. “You can’t judge them too quickly.”
Aplin is also firmly in the camp of coaches and players who believe White has what it takes to be a successful SEC quarterback, giving many of the same reasons too.
He points to White’s toughness — “I don’t know how many times I saw him step into a throw and take one under the chin last year” — and arm — “how do the kids say it? He drops dimes.”
The key for White will be overcoming the physical limitations of being 6-foot-0. The sophomore has to adjust his game to playing behind four linemen that are 6-foot-4 or taller.
“He has to be able to find windows and throwing lanes,” Aplin said.
With White at the helm, Auburn’s offense in the weeks to come could look similar to Arkansas St.’s in 2012 with the coaching staff tailoring the game plan to Aplin’s strengths.
“I was nowhere near what Cam Newton was,” Aplin said. “The running aspect wasn’t something I was extremely great at.”
It wasn’t the first time Malzahn made it work either.
“A lot of people forget about his time at Tulsa,” Aplin said. “They ran more of a wide-open, spread offense. Malzahn has always done a great job of adjusting to the players he has.”
Malzahn drew plenty of criticism for Auburn’s offensive game plan against Clemson, but Aplin isn’t joining the chorus.
Aplin knows Malzahn will work around the clock to get the offense fixed.
From Aplin’s time as one of Malzahn’s players to the two years on Auburn’s staff, Aplin knows the coach’s business-like approach isn’t a façade he puts on for the public.
“It’s constant,” Aplin said. “He always wants perfection. He always seems business like because he is — it’s the same way whether it’s during a walkthrough, watching film, at team meetings and during games. He’s just a little different.”
Malzahn is committed to football in a way Aplin has rarely seen. Aplin had three head coaches during his time at Arkansas St. and has worked on a number of different staffs since.
They were all perfectionist types, but Malzahn takes it to another level.
“Coach doesn’t open up much,” Aplin said. “I remember him coming up to the quarterback room one time and shutting the television off on coach Lashlee. He sat and told us all stories that were great, but he didn’t do that very often. What you see is kind of what you get with him.”