Bailey Zappe breaks multiple NCAA passing records; where does he fit in 2022 NFL Draft?
Playing in the…yeah…ROOFCLAM(DOT)COM BOWL*…Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe broke Joe Burrow’s NCAA record for touchdown passes in a single season, throwing number 61 midway through the third quarter against Appalachian State.
*I guess it’s roofclaim, but what I’m seeing on the screen is roofclam.
I’ve been tracking Zappe’s season pretty much since he threw seven touchdowns in a Week 1 win over TENNESSEE-MARTIN, but how does the high-profile, air raid transfer from Houston Baptist stack up as an NFL draft prospect now that his first and only division-I season is in the books?
First, let’s go through some STATISTICAL NOTABLES:
Zappe threw between three touchdowns and seven touchdowns in all 14 games this season. The only other person to throw at least three touchdowns in 13 games? Burrow. Zappe set the record for most three-touchdown games on Saturday too. Among those 19 players to have done it at least 10 times are Sam Bradford, Derek Carr, Baker Mayfield, Kyle Trask (who went at the end of round two in 2021), and Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury.
Zappe hit the 300-yard mark in all but one game this season. The NCAA record is 14 games by Case Keenum and Paul Smith, while Zappe joins Burrow, Colt Brennan, and Graham Harrell as quarterbacks to do it 13 times.
Zappe is the sixth player to have at least eight 400-yard games, and the third player to ever have at least six games with 5+ touchdowns. (RIP Colt Brennan, who had eight 5+ TD games for Hawaii in 2006)
Zappe’s 6 TD, 0 INT performance vs App State gave him 11 games this season with at least three touchdowns to go with one or zero interceptions; Burrow did that 12 times in 2019, and Brennan did it 11 times in 2006.
Zappe faced 12-1 UTSA twice this season and he threw for over 500 yards both times. En total, Zappe had 1,100 passing yards, 9 TD, 3 INT vs UTSA (a REALLY GOOD TEAM) and the vastly overmatched Hilltoppers made it close both times.
Zappe also set the NCAA record for passing yards in a single season.
As a 6’1, 180 lbs “dual threat” QB comin out of Victoria, Texas in 2017, Bailey Zappe was a nobody. He didn’t get any stars, he didn’t get ranked by anyone, and he chose to go to Houston Baptist because that was his only opportunity. His father was overjoyed that a school noticed his son’s prolific stats at Victoria East, when everyone else ignored him:
"He was one of the better quarterbacks in the state, numbers-wise, but he had one offer," Michael Zappe said. "I nearly broke down in tears [when Houston Baptist offered] because he'd finally gotten the opportunity to play at the next level."
But just being accepted by one college football program does not make a star. At that point, Bailey Zappe was the same as hundreds—thousands—of other hopefuls, 99 percent of whom will never reach the NFL and 99.99999999999 percent of whom won’t set the NCAA passing record for touchdowns and yards in a season. Zappe threw five touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a true freshman. What Zappe and Bappy (which is why I hope that they called Houston Baptist over the last few years) really needed to get to this point was to find a way into the next offensive revolution. Something like…I don’t know….PATRICK MAHOMES?
Baptist head coach Vic Shealy wanted to build his team around Zappe, and through investigating sources for a keen offensive mind, had a guy named Zach Kittley fall into his lap. What was Kittley best known for at that point—and at this point? He was an assistant quarterbacks coach at Texas Tech who had worked directly with….PATRICK MAHOMES.
As written by ESPN’s David M. Hale (I won’t recount everything that Hale wrote, just go read the article), a very slight connection between Zappe’s family and Kittley’s family led to him being hired as Houston Baptist’s offensive coordinator in 2018. That year, Zappe improved immensely, throwing 23 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, setting multiple single-game school records for yards and touchdowns. Kittley then took the lid off in 2019, going full air raid, and Zappe’s season stats looked like this:
357/560, 3,811 yards, 35 TD, 15 INT
"He said I would be throwing the ball 40 or 50 times a game," Zappe said. "That's all I needed to hear. But honestly, anything was better than what I did my first year."
Zappe’s stats would’ve undoubtedly reached SITUATION:INSANITY in 2020, but a pandemic-shortened season instead resulted in 141/215 for 1,833 yards, 15 TD, 1 INT in only four games. One of those came against Texas Tech, a program with a ridiculously better roster, but Baptist only lost by two points. Tripling his stats for a 12-game season, Zappe could’ve easily threatened for 50-TD campaign as a senior at Houston Baptist. Instead, Zappe was able to transfer to Western Kentucky for a shot at better competition, but he wasn’t the only one.
As Hale notes in his ESPN profile, Zappe was one of the hottest transfers of 2021 and he was close to committing to Tennessee, but as the people around him at Houston Baptist all started to reveal their next moves, Zappe felt his best shot at success was to follow them. Not only was Kittley hired as the offensive coordinator at Western Kentucky, but Jerreth Sterns—Zappe’s number one target—was also going to that program for a chance to repeat Baptist’s success at a higher level. Zappe turned everyone else down and went to Western Kentucky.
The Hilltoppers scored 40 points or more nine times in 2021 and finished the season averaging 43.1 points per game. Only Ohio State was better. Sterns enters the bowl game with 137 receptions (39 more than any other FBS receiver) and Zappe has thrown for 5,545 yards (nearly 1,100 more than the No. 2 QB, fellow Air Raid passer Will Rogers at Mississippi State) and 56 touchdowns -- four shy of Joe Burrow's FBS record.
"Once Bailey got here and we started talking, I could just tell immediately he was a guy who operates on a whole other level," Helton said. "That's when I knew. ... I knew we were going to blow this thing out of the water."
In Jerreth Sterns’ final collegiate game this weekend, he caught 13 passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns. That gives Sterns 150 catches, 1,902 yards, and 17 touchdowns in 14 games. Sterns is the fifth player to ever top 1,900 receiving yards, joining Trevor Insley, Troy Edwards, Michael Crabtree, and Jordan White. In my previous write-ups on Sterns, I pretty much see him as a guy who HAS TO GET DRAFTED, but teams might view him as being too small to have a major impact at the next level. Even if “diminutive” isn’t the end-all that it used to be, Sterns doesn’t have some of the attractive attributes that Crabtree had in the 2009 draft, so I don’t see him being an elite prospect.
Obviously Zappe has to answer some of the same questions about competition, size, and strength. What’s always most important to me with regards to QB evaluation is still the most basic QB question you can answer: “How does he look when he’s throwing the football?”
Is it natural?
Does it seem effortless when he’s throwing more than 15 yards downfield?
Is he accurate?
Is he just “catching and pitching” without ever seeming to read the defense?
Is he in a shotgun, spread offense, with little pressure around him and wide open receivers at every level or is he slicing a dicing an erratic pocket then finding paper thin windows to throw into?
I’m sure that criteria could seem so basic and simple, but that’s who I am as an NFL “scout”—basic and simple—and so far it’s worked for me with remarkable consistency. I also don’t watch HIGHLIGHT videos. I watch full games. I NEED to see the bad decisions and throws much more than I need to see the good throws.
Here’s Zappe facing a very bad UT Martin defense:
Despite UT Martin being who they are, I think Zappe looks pretty good in this footage. So many wide open receivers, but Zappe makes some tough throws and good decisions nonetheless.
Here he is vs UTSA:
Overall, I think you could argue that Bailey Zappe might have even been a good fit for Alabama, were the circumstances at Alabama more like the “old days” rather than Nick Saban being able to recruit the likes of Bryce Young to his program. Could Zappe have sat back there, as Mac Jones did in 2020, and gotten the job done? Well, he just threw 62 touchdown passes, did he not?
Now measuring at a supposed 6’2, 220 lbs, Zappe’s frame doesn’t seem as slight as it did as a high school senior in 2017. Mel Kiper has him ranked seventh among QB prospects—remember, Zappe wasn’t even on a Division-I radar until he faced Texas Tech a year ago—and that comes in a draft class with no strong QB prospects. I am not saying that evidence doesn’t exist that could prove that Matt Corral is a much better prospect than Bailey Zappe…I’m just saying that I haven’t seen it yet.
Up next for Zappe will be the Senior Bowl, or some such event, then the combine and pro day and endless evaluation of the upcoming quarterbacks class…of which there will likely not be any future NFL stars. There could be, but there’s a good chance that the media (including myself) is going to overhype the class because they always do, but ultimately we might be left with another E.J. Manuel/Geno Smith sort of class in 2022.
Given that, Zappe might find himself in a situation like that in Dallas, Tennessee, or Cleveland, where the team is interesting in developing a backup and not looking for a franchise player. Of course, Kliff Kingsbury’s backup in Arizona right now is Colt McCoy, so linking Zappe back to where it all started makes as much sense as the fact that Zach Kittley was recently hired to be the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech.
It’s been a full circle story for Bailey Zappe so far, and remarkably that journey will continue when he’s drafted in roughly five months.