Bailey Zappe's journey to a historic season for Western Kentucky

Daewood Davis hauls in 73-yard TD for Western Kentucky (0:24)

Bailey Zappe finds Daewood Davis for a 73-yard touchdown and a 7-7 Western Kentucky lead. (0:24)

HOUSTON BAPTIST COACH Vic Shealy was fresh off a 1-10 season and in need of a new offensive coordinator when he called up Michael Zappe in January 2018. Zappe's son, Bailey, was a freshman QB at Houston Baptist who'd endured an equally frustrating season. Changes were coming, Shealy said, but Bailey was going to be the foundation. He just needed to figure out how to build around the QB.

"You wouldn't happen to know of anyone, would you?" Shealy asked before the two said goodbye.

Actually, Michael Zappe did have someone in mind -- a young guy at Texas Tech, the son of the school's legendary track coach, who had spent the past couple years in an off-field role working with Davis Webb, Patrick Mahomes and Kliff Kingsbury.

Zach Kittley's parents were good friends with Zappe's wife's parents. It's a typical Texas-style six degrees of Kevin Bacon situation, but Zappe thought it might be worth a call.

"I don't know a ton about him," Zappe told Shealy, "but you should reach out."

A few days later, Zappe's phone rang again. It was Shealy: "I love this guy!"

With Kittley calling the plays, Bailey Zappe would go on to become one of the most prolific passers in college football history -- just another in a remarkable run of small coincidences, and seemingly incidental twists of fate that converged to become one of 2021's best college football stories.

On Saturday, Zappe, who had just one Division I offer coming out of high school, will lead Western Kentucky against Appalachian State in the RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl (11 a.m., ESPN/ESPN App), needing just four TD throws to match the all-time single-season FBS record. He'll do it running an offense designed by Kittley, who was just hired as the new offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, a full-circle journey back to the place where he started after giving up on a basketball career. And if Zappe sets a new touchdown record, there's a good chance that historic pass will land in the hands of Jerreth Sterns, a guy who nearly played QB at Army, now the nation's most prolific receiver.

"I wouldn't say it's destiny," Sterns said. "But it's something like that. Each of us, we text every day. We have that same chip on our shoulder. We have the same mindset about the game. And I think that just makes it even more special."

BAILEY ZAPPE PLAYED high school football in Victoria, Texas. As a senior, he had more than 4,300 yards and 52 touchdowns but still didn't generate much interest from colleges.

Victoria is a recruiting desert between Houston, Corpus Christi and San Antonio -- "people drive right through Victoria," Zappe said -- and his school, Victoria East, rarely produced FBS talent. When Zappe's senior season ended, he still didn't have a Division I offer. Then Shealy called.

"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."

Almost eight hours northwest, in Lubbock, Texas, a 26-year-old savant was soaking up all the knowledge he could about the Air Raid offense. Kittley was tall and lanky -- 6-foot-7, a shade over 200 pounds -- and he grew up figuring he'd be a basketball star. He excelled on the court in high school, but after landing a scholarship at Abilene Christian, his hoops career fizzled.

"Basketball was just not for me," Kittley said. "I found out that, to be a college athlete, you have to love every single aspect that comes with it. I liked playing basketball, but I did not love it."

Kittley's dad was the longtime track coach at Texas Tech, so he decided to go home and finish his degree there. In Lubbock, Kittley began working for his dad with the track program, but he'd always loved football, and when Kingsbury was hired to coach the Red Raiders, Kittley reached out to offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie with a request.

"I just want to be a fly on the wall," Kittley told Cumbie. "I'll make the coffee. I'll do whatever it takes to just get in."

As a senior, Kittley was a student coach on the staff, then served as a graduate assistant. When Cumbie left to become offensive coordinator at TCU in 2014, Kittley was shuffled into the QBs room, where he worked directly with Kingsbury, tutoring Webb, Mahomes and Nic Shimonek. When Kingsbury's attention turned toward his role as head coach, he largely entrusted his QBs to Kittley.

"I really got a different look at the game, being around guys like that who played at such a high level," Kittley said.

Kittley's time working with Kingsbury and Mahomes made him an easy sell when Shealy called about the job at Houston Baptist in 2018, and there, he found the makings of another elite QB in Zappe. As a true freshman, Zappe had thrown just five touchdowns and 10 interceptions, but he had good size and arm strength and, more importantly, he absolutely loved the game, devouring film and studying the nuances of the scheme the same way Kittley did.

In Zappe, Kittley found his next project. In Kittley, Zappe saw a path beyond his early struggles.

"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."

Sterns was committed to Army, where he planned to play quarterback in the option offense, but Kittley made a similar pitch -- 50 to 60 catches a year, he said -- to lure the speedy receiver to Houston Baptist.

In 2018, the new Air Raid scheme produced results. Zappe threw 23 touchdowns. Sterns had 68 receptions. In 2019, Zappe threw for 35 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards, while Sterns caught 105 balls. The 2020 season might have been the crescendo, but when the pandemic hit, the prospects of a season nearly disappeared altogether.

With the COVID-19 pandemic raging in the summer of 2020, most FBS teams shifted their schedule to the spring. A handful of teams, however, opted for abridged fall campaigns, made up entirely of non-conference games. For Houston Baptist, this meant playing three straight games against FBS competition -- including a road trip to Texas Tech.

The game would prove to be a turning point for Kittley, Zappe and Sterns.

Texas Tech jumped out to an early 21-3 lead, seemingly headed toward a lopsided win for the Red Raiders in a game they were favored to win by 40. And then -- magic.

"We did a lot of stuff in that game that we'd never done before," Kittley said.

Zappe connected on a 65-yard TD pass in the second quarter, then a 65-yarder in the third. After Texas Tech scored to go up 15 early in the fourth quarter, Zappe responded on the next play, hitting Sterns' younger brother, Josh, for a 75-yard touchdown to narrow the gap again. Zappe's final TD throw of the day was a 6-yarder to Jerreth Sterns with 3:23 remaining, but his two-point try failed.

Final score: Texas Tech 35, Houston Baptist 33.

It was a loss, but Zappe and Co. had used the platform to capture the attention of a much bigger audience.

"It was kind of a coming-out party for all of us," Zappe said. "We put HBU on the map, put ourselves on the map. That game set it all off to where we started thinking, maybe we can go play at a bigger school. A lot of what's going on now probably goes back to that game. So I'm thankful Texas Tech wanted to play us."

Zappe finished the four-game season with 15 TD passes, just one interception and averaged nearly 460 passing yards per game.

When his season ended in early October, he began thinking about 2021 and all the pieces Houston Baptist would bring back. There was a possible run toward an FCS championship, he thought. But there was also a chance he could do something more.

KITTLEY REGRETTED THE words almost the second they escaped his mouth.

He was interviewing with Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton, hoping to land a job as the Hilltoppers' offensive play-caller. Helton asked what Kittley envisioned for the offense if he took over.

"I'll never say this in an interview again," Kittley said with a laugh, "but I told him we'd score 40 points a game."

Kittley believed in his scheme, of course, but that was an aspirational number. It took three years at Houston Baptist for the offense to truly find its groove. Could he really turn the Hilltoppers into a scoring machine in just one offseason?

Zappe, too, was thinking big. When Kittley announced he was leaving for WKU, Zappe entered the transfer portal with his sights set on an FBS team. He left for a hunting trip with his dad, hoping for some peace before figuring out his next step.

Instead, Zappe spent the entire trip fielding calls.

"It blew up," Michael Zappe said. "The entire four or five days, he was on the phone."

He'd hang up, look at his dad and smile. Tennessee called. Notre Dame called. South Carolina called. USC called. It was all the attention Michael Zappe believed his son deserved coming out of high school -- it just came a few years later than expected.

Initially, Zappe was leaning toward Tennessee, but after a coaching shakeup and the threat of NCAA sanctions, he reconsidered.

Jerreth and Josh Sterns both decided to transfer, too, and they'd already committed to follow Kittley to Western Kentucky. The more Zappe thought about it, the more it made sense. He knew the coach, the scheme, the receivers. If he was going to take a shot at stardom at the FBS level, this was his safest bet.

Zappe called Kittley and gave him the news. It was the moment Kittley knew he could deliver on his promise.

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."

FOR THE SEASON, Zappe has averaged 427 passing yards and 4.3 touchdowns per game. If he matches his averages in the Boca Raton Bowl, he'll set the FBS single-season record in each. Many of the QBs he'll pass -- Graham Harrell, Case Keenum, Anthony Gordon, B.J. Symons -- come from a similar Air Raid scheme.

But it feels a bit too simplistic to categorize Kittley's scheme and Zappe's execution as simply Air Raid.

There are, of course, tenets of Hal Mumme's original blueprint, handed down to Mike Leach and Kingsbury from there. But this is more of an Air Raid 3.0.

"We've laid a blueprint for a new kind of Air Raid," Helton said. "It's not just just line up four wide and go fast. We're utilizing every piece we have and it gives defenses a lot of problems."

Western Kentucky uses its tight ends. The Hilltoppers don't run a ton, but they have three players with at least 50 carries this year. Kittley has adapted his scheme to the players around him, disguising plays with unique formations and personnel groupings. It's not an offense based on throwing the ball as much as possible, but rather on how creative the offense can be when throwing the ball.

Kittley's alma mater decided it wanted that blueprint, too. On Dec. 5, new Texas Tech head coach Joey McGuire hired Kittley as offensive coordinator, a return to his roots for the kid who grew up watching Leach's Air Raid offenses. Still, he will be with Zappe, Sterns and Western Kentucky for one last ride against Appalachian State before turning his attention to the Red Raiders.

NFL scouts aren't viewing Zappe as a product of a gimmicky system either. At 6-1, 220 pounds, the 22-year-old senior has the look of an NFL QB, and ESPN's Mel Kiper ranks Zappe seventh among quarterbacks eligible for this year's draft.

Sterns, meanwhile, has firmly established his credentials as one of the most elusive receivers in the nation. In an offense designed to get him into space, Sterns has racked up 1,041 yards this season -- after the catch. It's a number that would put him ahead of all but 28 other receivers in total yardage in 2021.

"There's a misconception of the Air Raid," Zappe said. "This is not that. [Kittley] has made his own wrinkles, and I'm sure 10 years from now, we'll be talking about coach Kittley's Air Raid tree."

Zappe said he's proud to be one of the roots of that tree, but what thinks about most is how the real magic of this journey with Kittley and Sterns is the way they've made each other better -- each piece integral to navigating this twisting trail.

There was a moment last month after Western Kentucky topped Marshall to secure a spot in the Conference USA championship game, when Zappe was coming off the field and found his two football partners. First, there was a feeling of relief, Zappe said. How many critics had they proved wrong along the way? How many coaches had overlooked them? How many moments were there when the whole recipe might have collapsed, if fate hadn't intervened in just the right way? But quickly that gave way to elation. They'd taken the ride together, and that's what made it worthwhile.

"It makes everything worth it that we've endured," Zappe said. "All three of us together in that moment in time, it was just awesome. It was surreal."