Current Western Kentucky offensive coordinator Zach Kittley knew that Bailey Zappe was going to be a special quarterback when the two were with the Houston Baptist Huskies back in 2019.
HBU played South Dakota on Sept. 14 that year and the program hadn’t won a lot of games. The week before the game, Zappe suffered an ankle sprain and could hardly get around—a lot of quarterbacks wouldn’t have taken the field in that situation. But Zappe wanted to play, and he was a difference-maker when he did.
“He hadn’t been able to do much in practice, was in a boot all week and could hardly walk around,” Kittley said. “He came out of that South Dakota game and threw for 513 yards and five touchdowns. We ended up winning that game 53-52, going for a two-point conversion with about 25 seconds in the game. That was the moment I knew his career was going to be on the rise.”
Both Kittley and Zappe are now with the Hilltoppers, and the quarterback’s ascension has continued as he continues to garner attention, currently second in the nation with 3,000 passing yards.
“If you look at the past three years of what he’s done, I think it all leads up to this,” Kittley said. “It’s reflective of all the hard work he’s done and the maturity and just getting more comfortable playing the position.”
Zappe plays in a bit more complex version of the Air Raid scheme at WKU than he did at HBU and carries a large responsibility as the team’s signal-caller, especially from a mental standpoint.
“We carry approximately 115 plays each week into a game,” Kittley said. “The quarterback has to know everything… the entire play call comes from me and the quarterback has to use hand signals to tell the other 10 players on the field what to do as well as understanding what they’re doing.”
Coming to WKU in 2021 was a bit of a learning curve for Zappe, but one that’s given him no problems. His mental makeup has always been there and continues to help him reach new heights.
“When he first came here, he had mastered changing some routes, understanding where he was hot from,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “When we were combining who we were here at Western (Kentucky) in the past and what coach Kittley had done with his tree of the Air Raid, we said the quarterback is going to have to understand on the protections if he needs to redirect protections, get us in multiple protections… he was always good from the throwing piece and the ‘I’m going to change the route’ piece and the ‘let’s get in the right run game’ piece was a significant change for him.”
Since Zappe has been at WKU, he has done nothing but impress Helton—Helton has only been around Zappe for this one season and he already puts him above Sam Darnold, who was highly effective when he and Helton were at USC.
“You’re talking about a guy who can throw the ball all over the park and it reminded me of Sam Darnold,” Helton said. “Sam Darnold was a great talent at USC and could throw it all over the park, too. Sam could check to a run and move the chains and do all that and Bailey has that in him as well where he can say ‘I’m going to check to a run here and move the chains or get an explosive play off the run.’”
Zappe has shown a great deal of maturity and just “gets it” as Helton puts it. It’s hard to instill that in a player. When it comes to the mental aspect, it’s a lot of a you-have-it-or-you-don’t type of a deal.
“He came running over to the sidelines one time and checked to a run and we ended up scoring a touchdown and I said ‘man, you could have very easily thrown the fade for a touchdown’ and he said ‘coach, you know, we’ve got to be able to do both to win,’” Helton said. “And that was when I knew that this guy really gets it. Most guys would have just chucked it one more time and we’re not a juggernaut running football team by any means, but I think knowing what to do, when to do it, and how to do it... he gets it.”
Playing in the Air Raid at HBU and this version of it at WKU is something Zappe said has helped him grow.
“It’s helped me tremendously, from understanding the game as a whole. A lot of it comes down to pre-snap things… we do a lot more full-field progressions than people think,” Zappe said. “It’s not just one side of the field stuff. In the offense we run, we’re in a lot of full-field progressions which translates well to the next level. I think I understand defenses well, understand things post-snap and pre-snap things.”
Zappe really is the best of both worlds—he’s a quarterback who can sling it without hesitation and put the ball in the right place quickly, something that’s so important for an Air Raid quarterback. Since coming to WKU, he’s also grown his understanding in multiple different aspects as well.
“At the end of the day, a quarterback has to be able to change protections, get you in the right place, and understand everything that’s about to happen before it actually happens,” Helton said. “One thing I think we’ve done a really good job here of is understanding pass protections and the quarterback is trained in that area. He knows the problems with the protections before they arise, he can get you in the right protection, and then adjust routes, change routes. The thing we’ve taken maybe a step farther is that you’ve got to be able to run the ball into the wind.
You don’t have to run it exceptionally, but you have to keep the defense off-balance and say, ‘you’re not just going to play drop-eight coverage every down.’ We don’t just say that we’re running inside zone or a draw and that’s our answer… it’s for whatever front we see.
“Bailey (Zappe) is trained in the conventional Air Raid offense, but he’s been trained like a pro to understand that in the National Football League, you’re going to have to operate at all those levels and he’s been trained to do that.”
Helton doesn’t think twice about calling Zappe one of the best quarterbacks in college football right now. Looking at the film, it’s easy to see why the coach wants him on everyone’s radar—the high level of mental processing, confidence, quick release, ball placement, the perfect deep ball, the list goes on.
“He understands number one, where the ball is going to go,” Helton said. “Two, his reactionary time is exceptional. He’s able to make full-field progressions and respond to whatever the defense is giving to him and the third thing is his accuracy is exceptional. Those three things put you in an elite class of quarterbacks.
“Where Bailey sets himself apart is that he’s so savvy. He’s not a runner, he’s not this exceptional athlete, but he’s so savvy and it’s the little nuanced things where he’s able to slide, shuffle step, and make the defensive end run around him and then he gets a touchdown. Nobody picks that up unless you’re the coach watching it, and in those situations, most quarterbacks are sacked.”
Speaking of elite quarterbacks, Zappe models some of his game off of Drew Brees and takes notes on some of the similar attributes the two share.
“Drew Brees has always been someone who I’ve looked up to mechanics-wise, preparing-wise. Just watching him and the way he is in the pocket and stuff like that—it’s something that I kind of model my game after,” Zappe said. “We do have some similar things, we’re both not in that 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-5 range, so just watching him and how he kind of combats that.”
Outside of the incredible football IQ that Zappe boasts and all of the things he brings to the table as a quarterback, there are also the intangibles and relationships he’s built.
“He instills so much confidence in the rest of the team,” Kittley said. “I’m not just talking offense, I’m talking defense too. Since he’s gotten here, everyone respects him so much and they know when he has the ball he can get the job done. They believe, no matter the situation, let’s give this guy the ball and go get it done. That’s one of the most important things you can have at the quarterback position.”
Zappe will tell you that Jerreth Sterns is the best wide receiver in the nation. Sterns will tell you that Zappe is the most accurate quarterback in the nation and that he believes the two make the best quarterback-receiver duo in America chemistry-wise.
Zappe has an abundance of praise for how well his offensive line has protected him, how his receivers are always in the right spots, and the effort his running backs bring to the table. He’s a team guy who won’t take credit for all the success, and he and Sterns couldn’t be much closer than they are. The chemistry between the two is like watching Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
“Off the field is really what translates on the field. We’re best friends off the field. We’re together 24/7 off the field,” Zappe said. “I think the connection and being basically like brothers has helped us to have that chemistry on the field. There was a moment from the last game where we were toward the end of the second quarter and we’re driving. He looks at me and nods his head and tells me something and I’m like, okay, let’s do it. I check him a play and it works out. We have a lot of trust in each other, for him to be where he’s supposed to be and I’m blessed to have a guy like him. He’s made me look good in a lot of situations and he deserves everything he gets this year.”
Catching passes from Zappe instills a similar type of confidence in Sterns.
“It makes things easier to have Bailey Zappe as your quarterback,” Sterns said. “Bailey is the most accurate quarterback in all of college football and he shows that on film each week. We know where the ball is going to be consistently. We trust he’s going to make all the right reads.”
Moving forward into the home stretch of the season, Zappe is looking to make the most of it and hopes to keep improving and get the opportunity to play in the Conference USA Championship Game to cap off what’s been a great career.
Zappe has completed more than 71% of his passes this season for exactly 3,000 yards with 29 touchdowns and just four interceptions—that’s more than a solid ratio considering he’s thrown 346 passes this season.
“I think this year is going to be my most memorable because it’s my last one. I’m cherishing every moment that I have here. I’m grateful for the opportunity coach (Tyson) Helton gave me to come here and be able to play for this program. This final stretch of this season is going to be the most memorable to me—stuff I’m going to look back on for the next 10-20 years, what I did at WKU.”
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