‘There’s dudes at every level’: Recruiting from lower divisions key to WKU’s QB success


Tucker Covey

Graduate quarterback Austin Reed (16) runs the ball for a touchdown against UAB on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. WKU won 20-17.

Camden Bush, Football reporter

In the bowl subdivision of college football there are a few tried-and-true ways to find high-end success at the quarterback position.

The main way this is done is by enticing the top recruits at the position or finding less flashy recruits with solid potential and working to coach it out of them. 

Another way many teams find their quarterbacks is through the transfer portal. Through this method, schools can bring in talented quarterbacks from other high-level schools that were not happy with their playing time or the program’s success.

While this is how most schools find their quarterbacks, WKU has taken to a new approach over the last few years.

The Hilltoppers, rather than finding recruits or transfers from top schools, have taken to finding transfer talent from FCS and Division II programs. On the surface that may seem like a confusing notion because these leagues are at a lower level of competition. Because of this you would think the players would be worse, but this has turned out to not be the case.

WKU’s most recent two starting quarterbacks – Bailey Zappe and Austin Reed – were stars at the FCS and DII levels, respectively, before they arrived on the Hill. With both players came the question of how their game would translate to a higher level of competition, but both athletes adjusted almost seamlessly. 

Reed credits his successful transition to the people and players within the football program.

“I have really good teammates around me,” Reed said “Our receiving corps is unbelievable, our offensive line is really good, so it’s really made my transition to this level super easy, to step onto a really good team with really good dudes around me.”

Bailey Zappe

Zappe came out of high school as an unrated recruit with limited offers. Zappe ended up committing to the FCS program Houston Baptist where he went on to play four seasons. After putting together an impressive junior year in which he put up 3,811 passing yards and 35 touchdowns in twelve games, Zappe had an even bigger senior season. 

Zappe’s team only played four games in 2020 as the program opted out of conference play due to COVID-19. Despite only playing in four games, Zappe had an outstanding year, drawing interest from the Hilltoppers. Zappe averaged over 450 yards a game and threw for 15 touchdowns over the four contests.

Once he arrived at WKU, Zappe only got better. In just one season with the Hilltoppers, Zappe set the all-time FBS passing yards and touchdowns record with 5,967 yards and 62 touchdowns. 

“In my opinion Bailey Zappe is the best quarterback in college football, and now he gets to say he is one of the best,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said last season. “He’ll go down in history as being one of the best, and holds two records. It’s just special to be a part of that.”

After an absurd season with the Hilltoppers, Zappe entered the NFL Draft over the offseason and was the fifth quarterback drafted overall, going to the New England Patriots in the fourth round.

 Zappe entered the season as the third-string quarterback for the Patriots, as the team already had a solidified starter in Mac Jones and a backup in Brian Hoyer. However, due to injuries to the quarterbacks above him, Zappe has already made two NFL starts in his rookie season.

Zappe brought the teams wins in both games, prompting talk among fans if he should get the starting job full-time. He holds a completion percentage of 70.7% and has thrown five touchdowns to three picks.

Austin Reed

After Zappe left for the draft, the Hilltoppers faced the huge task of replacing him. The most likely starter for 2022 was Jarret Doege, a recent transfer from West Virginia.

Despite being a former starting quarterback of a power-five school, Doege ended up losing the quarterback battle to Reed before the season and transferred to Troy.

Reed, like Doege, was a transfer, but was from a much less prominent school. Reed transferred to the Hilltoppers after a very successful stint at the DII program of West Florida.

Coming out of high school Reed was also an unranked prospect and he had no FBS offers. Originally, Reed committed to Southern Illinois, but after getting no playing time Reed transferred to West Florida. In two years there he exploded for over 7,400 yards and 78 touchdowns.

After leading his team to the DII National Title in 2019 and finishing sixth in DII player of the year voting in 2021, Reed decided to transfer to WKU. 

Reed has already made a name for himself at WKU after just eight games of play in 2022. As of Nov. 1, Reed ranks second in all of the FBS with 2,764 passing yards. Reed also ranks sixth in passing touchdowns with 22. 

In his limited time on the Hill, Reed has vastly boosted his personal stock as he could now possibly be considered a draft prospect like Zappe was a year ago.

In their time at WKU, not only have Reed and Zappe amassed impressive personal stats, but they have brought wins to the program. 

Last season Zappe led the Hilltoppers all the way to the conference championship and to a win in the Boca Raton Bowl. So far this season Reed has built upon the program’s success, leading the Hilltoppers to a 5-3 record at this point in the season.

The question now is, will the Hilltoppers recent strategy rub off on other teams? After seeing the Hilltoppers pull off huge back-to-back huge quarterback seasons thanks to transfers from outside of FBS, other teams in college football could try their hand at the strategy.

“It’s one of those things where, I think there’s dudes at every level,” Reed said. “I think there’s obviously more prevalent guys at the higher levels, obviously, but I think there’s dudes at every level and I’ve played some. I’ve played some dogs at all those levels and they’re everywhere.”

Football reporter Camden Bush can be reached at [email protected].