Houston Baptist's Bailey Zappe is America’s most underrated quarterback

By Kelly Guess

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Late in the fourth quarter against Houston Baptist, Texas Tech decided to go for it on fourth down within the HBU 5-yard line. The staff figured, what’s the worst that can happen up 35-27? No need to play scared against an FCS opponent. If they don’t get it, HBU would have to go 96 yards to have a chance to tie the game. 

There was one issue, though. The best player on the field that night was wearing Husky white and orange. 

After the Red Raiders' sneak fell short, Huskies quarterback Bailey Zappe (pronounced Zap-ee) took his first snap in the end zone and delivered a perfect slant to wide receiver Jerreth Sterns to get out of trouble. Three plays later, he stepped up in the pocket and delivered a pinpoint pass to receiver Josh Sterns for 45 yards. 

Now Texas Tech was really sweating and the home fans at Jones AT&T Stadium were getting restless. There was still 4:13 on the clock. Zappe was cooking. And then receiver Ben Ratzlaff hit Tech’s man coverage with the sluggo. Bam. Zappe hit him perfectly in space to get all the way to the 2-yard line. 

Zappe zipped and zoomed all night long, throwing the ball 49 times and evading defenders with ease. He admitted to his coaches the next day that he felt guilty that he wasn’t sore after the game from getting hit, like he felt like he didn’t play hard enough. Texas Tech defensive linemen would disagree. They were walking up to the line at the end of the game, exhausted from chasing this Zappe kid around. 

Set up with 2nd-and-goal at the 6-yard line, Zappe fielded the ball, rolled right in the pocket and found a pristine slant passing lane to Jerreth Sterns with a sidearm throw. Touchdown. Never a doubt. 

Unfortunately the window on the 2-point conversion down the right sideline was a little too tight and Texas Tech was able to run out the clock for a too-close-for-comfort 35-33 win. Zappe wasn’t impressed with his 567 yards and four touchdowns in his first game against a Power Five opponent though.

He didn’t get the win. 

“Honestly, if we executed the way we can, we could have put 40 on them,” Zappe said. "If we rewind and go back and play Texas Tech again, I think we beat them.”  

* * *

Zappe’s performance against Texas Tech helped bring some national attention, but HBU’s quarterback has been one of the most dominant quarterbacks in college football hiding right under everyone’s nose. 

As a junior, Zappe finished No. 2 in FCS in both passing yards and passing touchdowns despite playing less games than many other contenders. If broken down per game, Zappe throws for more yards than any other returning signal-caller in Division I. 

But while his numbers are elite across the board, something special happens when Zappe faces off against FBS competition. 

“When you play an FBS team, you get more excited than you were,” Zappe said. “Especially when it’s a Power Five, Big 12 team, you get more excited, you get more nervous, it’s an extra side of it. But I get more excited.”

Call it excitement, call it focus, whatever it is – it’s dominance. Zappe’s performance was his fourth against an FBS program. He started his career with a strong 199-yard game against Texas State. However, since Houston Baptist switched to the Air Raid system in 2018, the numbers are eye-popping. 

In four games against SMU, UTEP, North Texas and Texas Tech over the past three seasons, Zappe completed 62.4 percent of his passes for 1,573 yards, 11 touchdowns and just one interception. Unbelievably, those numbers are actually better than his stats against FCS competition over the same stretch. Three of those losses are by a combined 13 points, an anomaly for a program still early in its development.

Bailey Zappe since 2018

  Games Yards Per Game Completion Percentage Touchdowns Interceptions Points Per Game
vs. FCS 19 297.1 60.3 48 25 29.6
vs. FBS 5 395.8 62.7 16 2 32.6

“Maybe it goes back to the fact that he wasn’t an FBS-recruited quarterback and maybe just that he wants to show everyone that he’s as good as anyone out there,” Houston Baptist coach Vic Shealy said. “He doesn’t take a backseat to anyone at any school in this state in his confidence and what he expects of himself.” 

So how does a quarterback with a picturesque 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame, an NFL arm and all the intangibles you could want end up at Houston Baptist, a program that has only existed for seven years? No one else wanted him.

When Zappe graduated from Victoria East, he had one offer: Houston Baptist. That’s it. That’s the list. Nothing even at a smaller division school – and his HBU offer came only about a month before National Signing Day. If redistricting didn’t push 5A Victoria East out of the Corpus Christi district and into Fort Bend, it might have never happened – South Texas remains one of the most underrecruited areas in Texas. 

“I really felt like he could play at any level, the highest level,” Victoria East coach Roland Gonzalez said. “He just needed an opportunity to get there.” 

When he got to campus, he grew a little from hovering around 6-foot to 6-foot-2, but was still a lanky 180-pound beanpole. Still, that didn’t prevent him from starting most of his freshman season.

“First thing that I noticed about Bailey was not his arm strength or anything, but just how smart he is,” HBU receiver Jerreth Sterns said. “He’s just real smart and it was like separating from all the other quarterbacks – he knows the checks to make, knows the defense they’re in. That’s when I realized he was going to be something serious.” 

However, Zappe’s career changed in 2018. Shealy decided his offense needed to be more productive, and turned to Texas Tech graduate assistant and air raid aficionado Zach Kittley, son of national title-winning Red Raiders track coach Wes Kittley. It took one practice for Kittley, then 26, to realize Zappe was the guy. 

The air raid has a reputation for being quarterback-friendly, but it can be difficult to learn the timing and finer points of running the offense. But with Zappe’s ability to take things from the meeting room to the practice field and later the game, that was never an issue. 

“I don’t limit anything for him, he can handle anything that I ask of him to handle,” Kittley said. “He gets the script, he takes it home, he studies it to where on Saturdays, I might be signaling in a play and I’m halfway through and he already knows.” 

By this point in his career, Shealy estimates that Zappe calls almost two-thirds of the plays just with his pre-snap checks and changes at the line, a staple of the most effective air raid systems. Uncoincidentally, the offense also jumped nearly 200 yards per game en route to becoming one of the nation’s best. 

“Bailey is very much a coach on the field and I think he’s able to take our scheme and it fits him because it allows him to be the driving machine behind it all,” Shealy said. 

* * *

Before the 2020 season, Dave Campbell'sTexas Football named Zappe to the Preseason All-Texas Small College team, the only sub-FBS quarterback on the list. Still, Zappe’s improvement from Year 3 to Year 4 beats even our wildest expectations. 

Through two games, Zappe leads Division I with 1,047 passing yards and seven touchdowns. Three of the top five FBS passers reside in the state of Texas, but no other QB in America clears even Shane Buechele’s 750 passing yards – and Zappe is doing it against higher-level competition. 

While Houston Baptist’s strong start is a Zappe success story, it also speaks to the way the program is growing. Sterns only had offers from Ivy League schools, service academies and HBU. His brother Josh only had HBU. Ratzlaff didn’t have any D-I interest coming out of high school and went to a JUCO. Now, all three are running circles around FBS programs. 

“It just helps us so much,” Jerreth Sterns said. “Anytime he’s in an article, he mentions our name. Anytime he does something great, it just puts us more in the spotlight and gives us and opportunity to get our way to the next level hopefully.” 

Perhaps more importantly, Shealy has prioritized bringing in numbers and bulk on the offensive line. Staying upright and healthy against Big 12 defensive linemen is no guarantee, but the newfound depth mixed with Zappe’s innate ability to zoom through the pocket has kept things moving with ease. 

“We’ve given Bailey so much more time and a cleaner pocket to throw the football,” Shealy said. “When you do have a talented quarterback that has a great football mind, you let him focus on the play and reading defenses instead of running for his life.”

While college football might be overlooking Zappe, the next level is not. NFL scouts from the Raiders, Packers and Seahawks have already started doing their due-diligence – and those are three franchises that know something about quarterbacks. 

However, his best endorsement might be from Kittley, who came to Houston Baptist after working closely with NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes and Davis Webb at Texas Tech. He knows what professional quarterbacks look like. 

“He can do it all,” Kittley said. “He’s light on his feet, he’s got great pocket awareness, and really just being able to see him operate an offense...there’s zero doubt in my mind that Bailey Zappe is going to be an NFL guy.” 

But first, Zappe will finish Fall 2020 with another FBS matchup against Louisiana Tech and an FCS game against Eastern Kentucky. Then, he’ll be back at Houston Baptist in Fall 2021 with one goal above all others: winning a Southland Conference championship and making the FCS Playoffs. The next level can wait. 

“It’s crazy to think I’m in this situation now – it’s almost a dream come true,” Zappe said. “There’s still some work to do. There’s still some things I have to work on to have that opportunity and succeed at that level.”

But until then, one thing is certain: Don't underestimate Bailey Zappe.

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