WKU OC Zach Kittley and the road that led him to the Hill

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Credit: WKU Athletics

Zach Kittley was introduced as WKU’s new offensive coordinator on Dec. 14, 2020 following the end of the regular season. Kittley most recently coached at Houston Baptist and Texas Tech. 

Jake Moore, Sports Editor

WKU Football hired Houston Baptist University offensive coordinator Zach Kittley in December of 2020 to reshape the Hilltoppers’ offense. Kittley, despite being a young coach, already has years of experience under his belt working with and developing NFL-caliber talent as well as running some of the most high-octane offenses in the country on his way to the Hill. 

His father, Texas Tech track & field head coach Wes Kittley, served as Zach’s first window into the world of coaching collegiate athletics. He was able to attend his father’s track meets and develop an understanding of how connections between players and coaches were made and how to help guide young athletes.

“My dad was never one that tried to force us into coaching, I got two older brothers, one’s an oil guy, one’s in a fertilizer business out there in west Texas. It was fun going to his track meets, being around his college athletes,” Kittley said. “I think I was in seventh grade or so, I told [my father] I wanted to be a coach one day, I didn’t know what else to coach at the time. I was 14 years old at the time, but I just knew I wanted to coach one day – this is the path that I knew I was going to take at a younger age.”

“I have three boys and I knew pretty early when they grew up that he was going to be my coach,” Kittley’s father said. “His two older brothers were good athletes and he was too, but he always seemed to ask me more questions about training or the profession than his brothers. Zach was helping me with the track team as a freshman in college when one day he said to me, ‘Dad, I want to coach Football’. I said, ‘well, you need to go over to football and ask Sonny Cumbie [wide receivers coach for Texas Tech] that you want to volunteer to do anything he wants you to do and learn from him’. I knew the regiment at football would either make him or break him.”

“Sonny was gracious to take him on and Zach went to work and impressed him and the staff,” Kittley continued. “He stayed helping Sonny the first year and then Sonny left to take the TCU offensive coordinator job and [Texas Tech head coach] Kliff Kingsbury called me and told me how valuable Zach was to them and [that] he was going to take him as his GA and help with the quarterbacks. There is where the real learning happened. I believe when he got to run film study with Baker Mayfield, Davis Webb, and of course Patrick Mahomes he started to blossom. Kliff Kingsbury truly took him under his wing and let Zach do a lot to learn that offense.”

Despite attending Abilene Christian University to pursue a career playing basketball, Kittley had to be honest with himself and admit there were things he loved more than hooping. He valued his basketball experience but knew he wanted to pursue a different path.

“I’m six foot seven, so growing up in west Texas I was the tallest guy on the corner all the time and I was a pretty decent basketball player so that was just a path that I felt I needed to take, just to kind of see how it went,” Kittley said. “And I’m glad I did that because I learned so much from that short experience but it wasn’t for me… college athletics is very intense, it’s like a full time job all the time so you’d better love what you’re doing. I just didn’t love the game of basketball enough… I always loved football, the X’s and O’s aspect of it.”

Wes Kittley explained that his son had a deep understanding of the game of football from an early age, showing his ability to run an offense and help others comprehend different kinds of schemes and plays all the way back in high school.

“When Zach played football in high school he started both ways on offense and defense. He was a receiver on offense and played safety on defense,” Kittley’s father said. “He was always telling players where to line up and I knew right quick that he had a mind for the game. His defensive high school coach was Don Black, and Zach loved him. Don would always tell me that Zach was his quarterback on defense. Without him out there, people didn’t know where to line up. High schools were starting to run spread offenses and Zach just understood where to tell his teammates where to line up. That was a telltale time I knew he was destined to be a coach.”

Kittley transferred to Texas Tech from Abilene Christian and immediately set his sights on coaching football. He was brought on as a student assistant in 2013 before moving up to the role of offensive intern for the 2014 season, and thanks to his young age, the Lubbock, Texas native immediately created a bond with his players.

“I was a young guy at the time, I was a student coach, so I was still 21-22 years old at that time,” Kittley said. “There’s a lot of things that those young men were going through in college that I was going through at the same time… I was really able to click with those guys on a personal level, which I think was really instrumental for me as a young guy.”

Kittley had joined a program that was bringing in future Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury, one of the most promising young minds the NFL has seen in recent memory. Kittley could tell immediately that Kingsbury was going to lead the Red Raiders to success.

“Kliff Kingsbury got hired as the head coach and I said ‘hey, this is a guy that I would love to learn from’. I love what he does offensively, I love the energy that he brings. I was fortunate enough to get my foot in the door there.”

But the Red Raider’s talent wasn’t just confined to the coaching staff. One of the young quarterbacks Kittley mentored was future 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes II. Kittley got to know the gunslinging quarterback when he took on an assistant quarterbacks coach role over his last three years at Texas Tech. Mahomes led the Big 12 in passing yards in 2015 (5,052) and led the NCAA as a whole in 2016 (5,052) while working with Kittley.

Even with his success as a Red Raider, Kittley knew there had to come a point where he needed to step out on his own. That opportunity came knocking immediately after Kittley’s squad fell to South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 23, 2017.

“After the Birmingham Bowl we played in 2017, I had three years to be a GA and my time was up. I had been at Texas Tech for five years now and I really felt like I had come into my own as a coach and I was confident in myself that it may be time for me to move on,” Kittley said. “I was 26 but really felt good about it. After the Birmingham bowl, literally sitting on the bus, wrapping my head around, ‘A’, the last second loss we had, but ‘B’, what am I going to do. I had a quality control position available for me there at Texas Tech to stay if I wanted to but it was tugging at my heart that maybe I needed to move on.”

“I was sitting on the airplane at this point after the bowl game, I checked my email and I had an email from the head football coach at HBU just reaching out for interest in possibly becoming the offensive coordinator,” Kittley continued. “I knew absolutely nothing about Houston Baptist, to be honest with you, other than we practiced in their facility when we played down in the Houston Bowl in 2015. I started doing my research, coach [Vic] Shealy was awesome to me and called me down for an interview… me and my wife, we prayed about it, and we felt like it was the right move for us at the time… I would never ever take back my time and that decision that I made.”

Kittley accepted the position at Houston Baptist and set to work revitalizing the Huskies’ offense. The 2018 season would prove rough for the team, as HBU went 1-10 without a conference victory. 2019 showed signs of improvement as the Huskies put together a 5-7 record with a pair of wins over Southland Conference opponents. The pandemic-shortened 2020 season, however, was when Kittley’s high-octane air raid offense began to draw national attention.

HBU played just four games and ended the year with a 1-3 record, but more important than what was in the win-loss column were the eye-popping offensive numbers put up by the Huskies’ receiving corps and quarterback Bailey Zappe. 

Zappe completed 141 of 215 of his passes for a completion percentage of 65.6%, throwing for 1,833 yards, 15 touchdowns and only one interception. Zappe’s favorite weapons, wide receivers Jerreth and Josh Sterns and Ben Ratzlaff, combined for 1,256 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 89 receptions. The offense averaged a whopping 33.8 points per game.

“It was a wild three years for us at HBU,” Kittley said. “All the credit goes to the players and the staff there… I inherited Bailey Zappe, the staff before me clearly saw something in Zappe that was very special.”

But the biggest statement the Huskies made in 2020 came in Lubbock on Sept. 12 when Kittley returned to Jones AT&T Stadium to face off with the program that set him up for success.

“It was an emotional deal for me. Lubbock is my home, I got two degrees from Texas Tech. I love that place,” Kittley said. “It was weird being on the visiting sideline and seeing the Masked Raider run out….it was kind of a rush for me.”

Despite entering the contest as 40-point underdogs, the Huskies kept the game close and almost pulled out the win. Zappe completed 30-of-49 passes for 567 yards with four touchdowns, the most passing yards ever for an FCS player against an FBS defense. The Red Raiders held on to win 35-33, but Kittley was able to leave Lubbock with his head held high. 

“We knew if we came in and operate[d] the game plan we would not get blown out by 40 points,” Kittley said. “Our kids came to play, I think it really opened a lot of eyes across the country [to say] ‘wow, these guys are legit and can really get it done’.”

Now that Kittley had proven himself as the leader of an offense, it was time to make the jump to the FBS level. WKU stood out as an early candidate.

“I’ve known about Western Kentucky football for a long time, this is a brand that’s known across the country,” Kittley said. “We used to study these offenses [at Texas Tech] in 2014, 2015, 2016, we loved to watch what WKU was doing, at the time they were one of the most explosive offenses in the country.”

“My offensive line coach [at WKU], Stephen Hamby, we coached together at Texas Tech for three years,” Kittley said. “He would always rave to me about this place, how awesome of an atmosphere it is, how great the town of Bowling Green is, and how awesome it is to work for coach Helton.”

Hamby’s praise of WKU seemed to have a strong effect on Kittley. When WKU head coach Tyson Helton reached out to Kittley, the Lubbock native was excited to answer the call. The two immediately formed a tight connection and Kittley began to feel right at home on the Hill.

“When coach Helton reached out to me to gauge my interest, coming here to lead this offense, I had already known how great it was hearing from coach Hamby,” Kittley said. “But getting on the phone and doing some zoom calls with coach Helton over a couple week period, he was just a guy that I really felt a connection with. I felt he was going to be able to help me advance in my career as well… this is a great family environment here at this program, and that’s something that’s important to me, having a wife and a two-year-old boy.”

Congratulations from Kittley’s former co-workers, Kliff Kingsbury and Patrick Mahomes, began to roll in once he officially took on the position. 

“I’m really excited for Zach and this opportunity at Western Kentucky. He is incredibly sharp and is definitely one of the brightest young minds in the game,” Kingsbury said in a statement. “That was obvious early at Texas Tech and he did a tremendous job for us; I know he had a big impact on Patrick Mahomes and was critical to his development. I know Zach was a really good hoops player, but I’m glad he chose to coach football because the game is better with sharp, young coaches like him in it.”

Once Kittley took the job in Bowling Green, however, he had to say goodbye to what he had helped build down in Houston.

“The day I took the job here we had a zoom call with the HBU football team and [coach Shealy] let the guys know that I was taking this opportunity here. He encouraged those guys to give me a call.”

A handful of players must have listened to Shealy, as Bailey Zappe, Ben Ratzlaff and brothers Jerreth and Josh Sterns all transferred to the Hill for the 2021 season. Kittley was elated to have his senior quarterback following him on the next step of his coaching journey.

“Whenever I was still at HBU I was kind of nervous that [Zappe] might go to the NFL on me,” Kittley said. “When I left [HBU], there was a little inkling in me thinking that he would leave, he had an SEC offer and a Big 12 offer. But for him, I felt like it was really just the relationship that he and I built… where he was going to play had to be perfect for him. He couldn’t take the risk of going somewhere and not knowing people and maybe not even learning the system, who knows what happens from there.”

“And then the other three guys, I love those guys. I recruited all three of them,” Kittley said. “I think that in their minds, the best thing for their career was to come here and continue to play in this offense with [Zappe] and me, they know how I operate, they know how I design plays, I felt like for them it felt more like home here, being able to have some continuity with me. I personally got to recruit those three so I developed a relationship with them and their families, and I just felt that the relationship that we had was something that was very important in their decision making.”

With familiar faces filling the depth chart and a new set of conference opponents to tackle, WKU’s new hire began prepping his offense for the 2021 season. Kittley expressed confidence that his style of air raid offense will be able to thrive in Conference USA, citing the experience he gained when his Huskies faced North Texas and La Tech in 2020.

“I think this offense can be successful in this conference,” Kittley said. “Last year we got to play, at HBU with FCS players, we got to play North Texas and La Tech. We had some success in that offense… whether it be to FCS or Power Five, whatever the case may be, I think the offense is successful as it goes.”

The Hilltoppers won’t be passing the ball on every snap, however. Kittley hopes to run a balanced offense that can tire out defenses using the running game while taking advantage of the deep ball as its deadliest weapon.

“We’re going to run the football here,” Kittley said. “My philosophy is, whatever it takes makes us successful. A lot of it’s predicated on what defense you play each week. We like to say that everybody in this offense eats. It’s not just the receivers, it’s not just the quarterback, the running backs are gonna get theirs too.”

WKU fans will get to see Kittley’s offense in action firsthand on Sept. 2 when the Hilltoppers open their season at home against UT Martin.

Sports Editor Jake Moore can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Charles_JMoore.