FIU’s football team knows veteran Arkansas State quarterback Ryan Aplin quite well.
In contrast, Arkansas State’s football team hardly knows fledgling FIU quarterback E.J. Hilliard.
If the Arkansas State defenders bump into Hilliard — and they certainly intend to Thursday night — they might not even know his name.
However Arkansas State’s well-known senior and FIU’s little-known freshman, will be on opposite sidelines and play key roles as FIU (1-4 overall, 0-1 in the Sun Belt Conference) takes on Arkansas State (2-3, 0-1 Sun Belt) in a 7:30 p.m. game at FIU Stadium that will be televised nationally on ESPNU.
There is one person who knows both quarterbacks extremely well. That would be FIU coach Mario Cristobal, who definitely will be rooting for Hilliard but also has a tremendous respect for Aplin.
The game is crucial because the loser will exit the field at 0-2 in the Sun Belt Conference.
Of Hilliard, his freshman quarterback, Cristobal said, “We expect him to continue to grow, mature and get better with the process.”
Hilliard, 6-3 and 180, took over the starting position when Jake Medlock went down against Louisville with a broken foot. Hilliard stepped in and completed nine of 10 passes in a 28-21 loss against the Cardinals.
“He got thrown in there and was running on pure adrenaline,” Cristobal said of Hilliard’s play against Louisville. “He made things happen.”
The following week against Louisiana-Lafayette, Hilliard became the first FIU true freshman to start at quarterback since 2002 and completed 16 of 26 passes for 204 yards with two interceptions.
“He did a decent job considering all the things going on around him at the time,” Cristobal said. “I think it will be a fairer assessment of him as the season goes on and he has more opportunities to continue at No. 1 and continue to take all the reps, at least most of the reps, in practice.
“He has a good grasp of a lot of stuff. The game is happening fast, and he’s adjusting quickly. He’s been real sharp all week [in practice]. We expect him to continue to grow, mature and get better.”
Thinking ahead to Thursday night and the quarterback who will be on the opposing sideline, Cristobal definitely knows how good Arkansas State’s Aplin can play. He has seen it in person. He has seen it in the film room.
“This is a great one,” Cristobal said of the 6-1, 205-pound Aplin, who was the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year in 2011. “He has done it with his arm, and he has done it with his feet. He’s excellent.”
It was the feet that Aplin used against FIU a year ago as he rushed for 164 yards in a 34-16 Red Wolves victory.
The entire FIU team, particularly the defense, is well aware of Aplin escaping their grasp for all those yards last season.
Strong safety Johnathan Cyprien, FIU’s leading tackler, was asked what he remembered of Aplin, and he did not hesitate.
“I remember he ran for 164 yards against us. And I remember I didn’t like it.”