The Bailey Zappe NFL Draft Hype Is Real, but Which Team Will Buy In?

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterApril 25, 2022

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAR 02: Bailey Zappe #QB17 of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers speaks to reporters during the NFL Draft Combine at the Indiana Convention Center on March 2, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In a hotel room in Bowling Green, Kentucky, wearing a white shirt and a trademark smirk, Bailey Zappe is writing the next chapter of his football fairy tale.

With the NFL draft just weeks away, Zappe will be the first to admit that it still doesn't feel quite real. Not the historic season that saw him throw for more yards and touchdowns than any quarterback in the history of college football. Not the transformation of a 0-star recruit with a grand total of one FCS scholarship offer to one of the most intriguing players in the draft class.

That isn't why Zappe is smiling, though. This part, long before the NFL ever entered the equation, has always come naturally for the QB—as have the words "yes" and "sir," which he recites habitually before he answers every question.

"I'm not really sure how early or late I'm going, but I'm just excited for this possibility," Zappe says. "Whenever I am called, this is truly a dream come true for me."

This is not a story about a can't-miss quarterback prospect taking a predictable, linear path to the NFL. That story has been written plenty of times before.

This is something different—something raw and something real. Something more relatable for us mere mortals.

In a span of eight months, Zappe has gone from a football unknown to the proud owner of the greatest statistical quarterbacking season in the history of college football.

To be clear, that is not hyperbole. Last fall, Zappe threw for an astonishing 5,967 yards and 62 touchdowns in his one and only season at Western Kentucky. Before then, his home was Houston Baptist—the one school that saw something no one else did.

"I can't speak more highly about him," says Zach Kittley, Zappe's former offensive coordinator at HBU and Western Kentucky. "He's a stud, and whoever takes him is going to get a steal in the draft.

"I don't take it lightly putting Bailey in a sentence with this player. But he's going to be your Drew Brees-type player."

Not everyone agrees. In fact, the scouting reports on Zappe range wildly.

In a draft year when nothing at quarterback feels solidified, the most productive offensive player from this past season remains an afterthought to many. If recent history tells us anything, however, it's that it would be best not to sleep on him much longer.

BOCA RATON, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 18: Bailey Zappe #4 of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in action against the Appalachian State Mountaineers during the first half of the RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl at FAU Stadium on December 18, 2021 in Boca Raton, Flori
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The city of Victoria, Texas, is essentially surrounded. At least that's one way to look at it.

Just 50 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, Victoria is the bull's-eye of the southeast Texas dartboard. Corpus Christi, Houston, San Antonio and Austin all enclose the small town that is roughly a two-hour drive from each.

Another way to look at it is that Victoria is in the middle of nowhere, which it largely is. It's a fixture on highway signs throughout the state, although it's rarely a destination.

"If you're going to go there," Zappe says of his hometown, "you're probably going to drive right through it."

Victoria is not big enough to be considered big or small enough to be considered small. As Victoria East High School coach Roland Gonzalez likes to say, "We have our own newspaper, a TV station and two high schools. There's not a whole lot to do, so athletics are really important for our community."

As you peel back the layers of Zappe's underwhelming recruitment, it starts with his hometown. At least that's what Gonzalez, who coached Zappe during high school, theorizes.

While Texas has plenty of recruiting hotbeds, this isn't one of them. Even when Zappe logged more than 4,300 yards and 52 touchdowns as a senior, the interest never truly came.

Gonzalez also speculates it might have been his former quarterback's size—or a lack thereof. Even now, at around 6'1" and 215 pounds, Zappe doesn't possess the body most NFL scouts covet.

"He didn't fit the prototypical mold that a lot of Division I schools were looking for," Gonzalez says. "He wasn't that real tall quarterback that would sit in the pocket, and we didn't run him a ton. That's probably a big reason why he wasn't heavily recruited because his numbers certainly warranted it."

Zappe's recruiting profiles to this day are largely incomplete, blank canvases. No stars. No stats. Just a low-quality head shot. It's as if someone started them and forgot to finish.

He wasn't just underrecruited; he was largely ignored. One coach, however, saw something.

"We thought a lot of people had missed on him," Houston Baptist head coach Vic Shealy says. "Honestly, we thought he could be special the more we watched. And when we got him, I think he was ready to prove to the world that he was better than everybody else."

With no other offers to pick from, Zappe committed to Houston Baptist. He started as a freshman, which featured more downs than ups. His sophomore year is when his football future started to take shape, thanks largely to the arrival of an offensive coordinator still in his 20s.

Zach Kittley was hired by Shealy for his first full-time position with Houston Baptist after spending years as a graduate assistant at Texas Tech. He brought with him a pass-heavy, quarterback-friendly offense.

Because of COVID, Houston Baptist played only four games in 2020. Zappe made the most of the limited season, throwing for 1,833 yards and 15 touchdowns in 16 quarters.

"Every single drive and play, it felt like something was going to happen," Shealy says. "How does a guy go from where he was to breaking all these records? Well, he was rarely off target, had excellent timing and rarely threw the ball into crowds."

The highlight at HBU was undoubtedly a 35-33 loss against Texas Tech. In that game, Zappe threw for 567 yards and four touchdowns. Suddenly, after years of failing to generate any interest, word started to get out.

Programs that didn't know Zappe existed a few years prior were now interested. Tennessee, Notre Dame and USC all checked in. The Vols had plenty to offer, and they came close to landing the QB.

Kittley, meanwhile, accepted the offensive coordinator position at Western Kentucky. Two of his top wideouts, brothers Jerreth and Josh Sterns, made the decision to follow their OC to the school. Jerreth, Zappe's roommate at HBU, recruited his quarterback to join him.

Zappe was the missing piece. And although he spent much of his life trying to capture the attention of the programs that suddenly coveted his abilities, he turned down offers at major programs for an opportunity that felt just right.

BOCA RATON, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 18: Head coach Tyson Helton of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers fist bumps Bailey Zappe #4 against the Appalachian State Mountaineers during the second half of the RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl at FAU Stadium on December 18,
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

In his Heisman-winning season last fall, Alabama QB Bryce Young, largely considered one of the favorites to be the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2023, threw for 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns.

Young won the award in a landslide following his dominance and massive statistical output. Along the way, his star power and notoriety grew exponentially.

Zappe bested the Heisman winner by nearly 1,100 passing yards and 15 touchdowns. And he did so in one fewer game.

"I don't think he got the credit he should have," Kittley says. "And not being invited to the Heisman ceremony was crazy to me, not to mention the Davey O'Brien or Maxwell Awards. Nobody has ever done anything close to what he's done in 14 games."

"I'm biased, of course. But I think he deserved more."

Zappe's 5,967 passing yards broke the single-season record previously set by former Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons in 2003. His 62 passing touchdowns broke the mark set by former LSU QB Joe Burrow, who threw for 60 touchdowns in 2019.

Burrow won the Heisman, a national championship and was drafted No. 1 overall by the Bengals a few months later. It's worth noting that Burrow needed 15 games to hit that mark.

Zappe's average game this year was essentially a weekly onslaught of video game numbers: 426 yards passing and almost four-and-a-half touchdowns. Although he threw the ball 49 times per game, he still completed 69.2 percent of his throws.

The offense he played in certainly helped, although Zappe capitalized. He was given the freedom to change plays as he saw fit—a strength both he and his coaches believe separate him compared to other quarterbacks in this class. Of his 686 attempts, only 11 throws were intercepted.

"I was kind of handed the keys to the Lamborghini," Zappe says. "I was able to check-in and out of plays as I saw fit."

His favorite target and former Houston Baptist roommate, Jerreth Sterns, delivered his own catalog of video game numbers: 150 catches for 1,902 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Like Zappe, Sterns made the decision to declare for the draft at the conclusion of the season.

"It's a blessing, and I owe a lot of it to Bailey," Sterns says. "Bailey knew the offense so well he could run it in his sleep. Everyone around him, including me, benefited from it. What receiver wouldn't love seeing that many targets?"

Despite the numbers and the broken records, Zappe's accomplishments were likely missed. The team and the conference certainly played a role in the lack of awareness surrounding his success.

When Zappe broke both passing records in a blowout win over Appalachian State in the Boca Raton Bowl—a game he was removed from because the score was so lopsided—the headlines were limited.

Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner reached out to congratulate him. But the rest of the congratulations largely came from his inner circle. Zappe didn't necessarily mind the lack of coverage. In some ways, it was familiar. 

"It wasn't a big deal, and I don't want to make it a big deal," he says. "We won the game, and that was most important."

Those around him, however, are still struggling to grasp why one of the greatest seasons the sport has ever seen wasn't a bigger deal.

"If we were at a Power Five school, it would have been different," Kittley says. "But unfortunately, we weren't the team going to the major bowl or the College Football Playoff. In my honest opinion, I don't think his season will ever be replicated again. It's unbelievable."

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 03: Bailey Zappe #QB17 of Western Kentucky throws during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 03, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Justin Casterline/Getty Images

For Jim Nagy, the rumblings about Zappe began earlier than most.

Two years ago, the executive director of the Senior Bowl was asked if he knew anything about a quarterback out of Houston Baptist. He didn't at the time, although he was curious enough to throw on some film.

"You put on the tape and you see a ton of good decisions," Nagy says. "And he makes those decisions quickly. He's really good from the neck up. He's accurate, too. There's a lot to like."

Zappe participated in his year's Senior Bowl alongside quarterbacks Malik Willis, Kenny Pickett and Desmond Ridder—quarterbacks that are expected to be taken in the draft long before he is.

Zappe held his own, which wasn't a surprise to Nagy. Although many assumed that both the team and conference invalidate some of Zappe's numbers, Nagy saw the QB thrive in some of his team's most important games this year.

Against Michigan State, the nation's No. 9 team in 2021, Zappe threw for 488 yards and three touchdowns. Against Army and Appalachian State, two of the nation's top 35 scoring defenses, Zappe threw for 857 yards and scored 10 touchdowns.

Nagy was also impressed with the way Zappe handles himself—the way his smile and disposition carries forward both on and away from the field. "I assumed he would do well in interviews," Nagy says. "And in talking to people, it sounds like he has."

The concern, if one exists, is Zappe's arm strength. Not everyone sees this as a weakness, although it might explain why Zappe is largely not considered as one of the top five quarterbacks in this class.

Bleacher Report has Zappe as the No. 127-ranked player in the class and the No. 7 quarterback. Given his production, his completion percentage and most everything else, there aren't many other traits to take issue with.

"Watch his pro day tape," Nagy says. "He can really put it out there. "He's a touch thrower, so arm strength tends to come up with guys like Bailey. But if a GM or a head coach were asking me if he has enough arm strength to play at the next level, I think he certainly does."

The dissection of Zappe's game and production will continue until he's finally selected in the NFL draft. Nagy believes the fourth round feels like a realistic expectation. Other NFL minds believe his positioning could be more fluid in either direction.

Those inside the circle are much more bullish. Of course they are. They have seen up close just what an impact he can have on a team or game.

"I'm always honest with NFL scouts, because they trust me and my word," Kittley says. "I've told everyone I've talked to that they will not go wrong drafting Bailey Zappe."

Zappe plans to take in the draft in Victoria surrounded by family and friends. It's only fitting that the next chapter will take place here, back where it all began.

In all likelihood, he will have to wait longer than he should to hear his name called. This part is no longer uncomfortable. In fact, it's practically routine. No matter the team or the timing, he will be all smiles like usual.

And then, when his football fate is decided, he will attempt to do what he's done for much of his life. He will force many to question what they saw.

Or, better yet, what they didn't see.