Zappe Voted C-USA MVP, Sterns Named Newcomer of the Year, Malone Earns Second DPOY

DALLAS, Texas — WKU Football quarterback Bailey Zappe was voted 2021 Conference USA Most Valuable Player, as selected by the league’s 14 head coaches, it was announced Wednesday. It marks the third time in eight seasons in C-USA that a Hilltopper has won the award, following quarterback Brandon Doughty’s back-to-back MVP’s in 2014 and 2015.
In addition, WKU garnered two other superlative awards, as wide receiver Jerreth Sterns was named 2021 C-USA Newcomer of the Year and defensive end DeAngelo Malone earned 2021 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year recognition. All three players also claimed spots on the All-CUSA First Team that was announced Tuesday.
For the year, Zappe is 442-of 639 passing (69.2%) for 5,545 yards, with 56 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The all-time single-season FBS yardage record is 5,833 by Texas Tech’s B.J. Symons during his 14-game 2003 season, while the single-season FBS touchdown record is 60 by LSU’s Joe Burrow during his 15-game 2019 campaign. A performance by Zappe of 289 passing yards and five touchdowns in the Hilltoppers’ bowl game would eclipse both marks.
Zappe’s 69.2% completion rate on 442-of-639 attempts, 5,545 yards, 56 touchdowns and 167.55 passing efficiency rating leads all league quarterbacks; with the next closest being Marshall’s Grant Wells’ 67.0% completion rate on 280-of-418 attempts (+2.2% with 221 more attempts) and 3,456 yards (+2,089), Charlotte’s Chris Reynolds’ 26 touchdowns (+30), UTSA’s Frank Harris’ 153.62 passing efficiency rating (+13.93). During the regular season, Zappe led C-USA with four Offensive Player of the Week awards.
With a C-USA Championship Game-record and career-high 577 yards at UTSA, Zappe became only the sixth quarterback in FBS history to achieve a 5,000-yard, 50-touchdown campaign. In addition, a 45-yard completion in the first quarter to wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley pushed Zappe over Brandon Doughty’s WKU single-season program record of 5,055, which was set during the 14-game 2015 season. Meanwhile, the 577 yards marked the first FBS passing performance of 560 or more yards since UCF’s Dillon Gabriel had 601 at Memphis on October 17, 2020.
From 2020-to-2021, the Hilltoppers went from scoring 19.0 points per game to 43.1 (+24.1 increase leads the nation), scoring 2.0 offensive touchdowns per game to 5.2 (+3.2) and 164.3 passing yards per game to 434.6 (+270.3). The 434.6 passing yards per game would be the second-best number in FBS over the past five seasons (2019 Washington State averaged 437.2). In 13 games this season, Zappe has 83 passing “chunk” plays of 20 or more yards this season with 23 of those going for touchdowns. Comparatively, in 12 games in 2020, WKU had 15 “chunk” passing plays with three of those going for touchdowns.
Defensive end DeAngelo Malone was previously voted the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, and becomes only the fourth player in C-USA’s 27-year history – and first since UCF defensive end Bruce Miller in 2009 and 2010 – to earn the honor twice. On Tuesday, he became the first WKU player in the program’s FBS Era to earn conference First Team honors – and the first since offensive lineman Buster Ashley, who was All-Gateway Football Conference First Team in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
This season, Malone is tied for the C-USA lead with 16.5 tackles for loss and ranks second with eight sacks. He ranks 12th in C-USA with 88 total tackles, although that number leads the nation among defensive linemen. The Atlanta, Ga., native is tied for the league lead with four forced fumbles, which is also ninth among all FBS defenders.
The senior from Atlanta, Ga., is the all-time WKU program record-holder with 33 career sacks, which also leads all active FBS defenders (Western Michigan’s Ali Fayad ranks second with 32). His 59 career tackles for loss also lead the nation (Texas Tech’s Colin Schooler ranks second with 56.5) and rank second in Hilltopper history behind only Sherrod Coates’ 75. Malone’s 343 career total tackles rank second, behind only Devon Key’s 350, in the program’s FBS Era (since 2009). His 52 career starts are tied for second in WKU history among non-specialists with offensive lineman Daniel Withrow, who was on The Hill from 2000-03, and trail only offensive lineman Brandon Ray’s 54 from 2014-17.
Sterns becomes the third WKU player to win Newcomer of the Year, following quarterbacks Ty Storey in 2019 and Mike White in 2016. Since the award was established in 2007, this marks only the fourth time in 15 seasons that a wide receiver has taken home the honor.
In 12 games this season, wide receiver Jerreth Sterns has 137 receptions for 1,718 yards and 14 touchdowns. His averages of 10.54 receptions and 132.2 yards per game lead all FBS receivers by 2.09 and 9.32, respectively, while his 14 scores are tied for third in the nation. His 137 receptions, 1,718 yards and 14 touchdowns led all league receivers; with the next-closest numbers being fellow teammate Tinsley’s 80 receptions (+57) and 12 touchdowns (+2), as well as UTEP’s Jacob Cowing’s 1,343 yards (+375).
Sterns’ 137 receptions are the seventh-most in a single season in FBS history and the most-ever by a C-USA player. The top three marks are 158 (East Carolina’s Zay Jones in 2016), 155 (Bowling Green’s Freddie Barnes in 2009) and 142 (Houston’s Manny Hazard in 1989). Meanwhile, his 1,718 yards are the 26th-most in FBS history; only four FBS receivers have ever reached the 1,900-yard plateau.
Former WKU wide receiver Taywan Taylor previously set the program records with 98 receptions for 1,730 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2016. Sterns made his 99th catch in the Hilltoppers’ ninth game this season in a 48-21 win over Middle Tennessee to pass Taylor’s mark. For his collegiate career, Sterns has 357 receptions for 3,689 yards and 32 touchdowns in 40 games played at WKU (13) and Houston Baptist (27). He has 17 100-yard receiving games and 18 double-digit catch performances, including nine and eight, respectively, this season.
Other C-USA superlative winners were: Coach of the Year – UTSA’s Jeff Traylor, Special Teams Player of the Year – FIU punter Tommy Heatherly, Freshman of the Year – Charlotte wide receiver Elijah Spencer and Offensive Player of the Year – UTSA running back Sincere McCormick. Due to C-USA award regulations, the Most Valuable Player is not permitted to also win Offensive or Defensive Player of the Year.
The Hilltoppers conclude their season on Saturday, December 18 in the 2021 Boca Raton Bowl on Saturday, December 18, where WKU (8-5) will face App State (10-3) of the Sun Belt Conference. Kickoff at FAU Stadium is set for 10 a.m. CT and will be aired nationally on ESPN.