Bailey Zappe and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers ran their offense at a tempo that opposing defenses simply couldn’t match.
There were often a few inevitable results. The first was passing yards: A lot of them. Zappe finished his season with 5,967 yards, setting an FBS record. He also scored 62 touchdowns, another FBS record. The second seemingly inevitable outcome was a fake injury. Defensive players would take a dive — something out of the Serie A, the Italian soccer league — and that “injury” would slow down the pace of the Hilltoppers offense. Zappe would generally be the first person to chat with the supposedly injured player.
“You think he’s tapping the guy on the helmet to say, ‘Man, I hope you’re OK.’ But he’s actually going, ‘How about getting your butt up and quit faking and let’s get on with this!’” Hilltoppers coach Tyson Helton said with a chuckle. “So that was pretty fun to watch game in and game out, because that was the only way a defense could stop our tempo.”
Subtlety was the name of the game.
“Bailey likes mixing it — but he picks his spot,” Helton told Patriots Wire by phone Tuesday. “He does it the right way. It’s not out there in the open for everybody to see.”
Zappe — like every quarterback — badly wants to win. He is the consummate competitor. And that makes for an interesting situation as the 2022 fourth-round pick enters the same quarterback room as New England Patriots’ Mac Jones, the 15th overall selection in 2021.
Don’t expect Zappe to give Jones the starting job every year.
“(Zappe) is definitely every single day trying to take another man’s job — no matter who that guy is in front of him,” Helton said. “I think it’s awesome that he has an opportunity to say: ‘OK, here’s an established starter in Mac Jones, who’s a very, very good player.’ I admire him as well. I think he’ll play for a long time and be very successful.
“But I think you’ve got two great men at the helm that can make each other better every single day and compete every single day. Competition brings out the best in everybody. I think they’ll be great for each other and it’ll be great for Bailey to not have that pressure out of the game where he needs to be a starter. … There’s no question in my mind that from Day 1, he’s going to push whoever is in front of him.”
The Patriots really liked Zappe. Not only did they take him in the fourth round — well ahead of his projected range — but they were one of the three teams most interested in the quarterback during the pre-draft process, per a league source. And, of course, the Patriots really like Jones after he led the team to a playoff appearance in his rookie season. They’re in a good spot with their quarterbacks: Jones, Zappe, Brian Hoyer and Jarret Stidham.
Zappe clearly has an appreciation for Jones.
“He’s a phenomenal quarterback,” Zappe said after Day 3 of the NFL draft last weekend. “He is a great QB as is the rest of the QB’s in that room. I am really looking forward to learning from all three of those guys and getting up there, meeting them and doing as much as I can to help the team. I am really excited about this opportunity.”
Maybe Zappe won’t be legitimate competition for Jones in Year 1. Maybe Zappe will never be legitimate competition. At 6-foot, 215 pounds, Zappe was hardly a sure thing to land on an NFL roster last year before he transferred from Houston Baptist University where he spent his first four college seasons. He was a good quarterback dominating the lower levels of competition — but maybe not a sure thing to get selected in the draft. It wasn’t until he transferred to Western Kentucky for his fifth and final college season that he blew up the stat sheet.
In short time, Zappe had full command of that offense and had the most prolific season in FBS history by most measurements. He doesn’t have an explosive arm and he doesn’t run well. Zappe wins with his intelligence.
“The really, really good quarterbacks — they’re like coaches. They’re like offensive coordinators. That’s where their minds are. Bailey is no different,” Helton said. “Bailey would sit in all of our offensive staff meetings with the coaches so that he was hearing the game plan be put together. He would ask questions. He’s the only guy that’s allowed to do that, because No. 1 he’s responsible enough, and No. 2 he knows how to separate the roles between player and coach.”
That’s the kind of quarterback the Patriots like to have: a student of the game whose maturity and football acumen make him good company for coaching meetings. New England didn’t need a quarterback in the 2022 draft. But when Zappe fell to the Patriots at pick 137, Bill Belichick and company must have thought he was too good of a prospect to let slide.
“Bailey’s what I call the great American quarterback. Off the field, he’s the kindest, nicest guy. ‘Yessir. No sir.’ On the field, he’s like what you want all the great ones to be. He’s cutthroat,” Helton said. “He’s highly competitive, extremely smart, always poised and he’s got a major ‘it factor’ about him.”