Boca Raton, Florida, is a great atmosphere for two of the top group of five schools to clash in a bowl game format. This year is no different. This time, the runners-up for both the Conference USA (Western Kentucky) and the Sun Belt (Appalachian State) fight for bragging rights in a big game that can play implications into NFL Draft stocks for certain NFL prospects.

Appalachian State (10-3, 7-2 vs Sun Belt) put together an impressive season, only losing their conference games to Louisiana on both occasions (a regular season matchup and the conference championship). Led by transfer quarterback Chase Brice, the Mountaineers were among the most competitive offenses in the group of five, scoring 34 points per game and averaging 428 yards of offense.

WKU (8-5, 7-2 vs C-USA) this season has been a passing show on turf, led by the Houston Baptist transfer quarterback Bailey Zappe. Zappe and the Hilltoppers have averaged an astonishing 434 yards passing and 43 points per game. A tough out of conference schedule limited the effectiveness of the defense, led by DeAngelo Malone, with losses to Michigan State, Indiana, and Army early in the year. Both Zappe and Malone are Senior Bowl bound and have plenty of reasons to show out for NFL Scouts.

Boca Raton Bowl – The Marquee Attraction: QB Bailey Zappe, WKU

Bailey Zappe (6’1″ 220 lbs) is Senior Bowl bound, but he has a chance to break FBS records in this matchup with the Mountaineers. Currently, BJ Simmons holds the FBS single season passing yardage record (5833), set in 2003 with Texas Tech. Zappe currently has thrown for 5545 yards and needs 288 yards to break the record. Also in the works, the single season passing touchdown record (60), set by Joe Burrow in 2019, is within Zappe’s reach with another big game. He currently has thrown for 56 scores this year, and with 5 touchdowns he can tie the record.

Speaking as a prospect, Bailey Zappe has rightfully garnered a lot of professional interest. His arm talent is good and he has a way of finding passing lanes and processing what the defense is doing very quickly. For the most part, he’s been smart with the football. He processes very well and has a natural feel for the field. Zappe looks the part of a career backup who could potentially be a low end starter.

WKU players to watch

DeAngelo Malone (6’3″ 240 lbs) is arguably the best defender in the group-of-five. He’s an explosive edge who has shown some improvement in 2021 as a run defender. The lone question to his game is whether he can be effective in pass coverage. If he can be with his athletic profile, he could help erase tight end mismatches at the next level.

Omari Alexander (5’10” 185 lbs) is looking to make an impression to be drafted. Right now, Alexander looks like a practice squad player at best. He is insanely quick and covers space very quickly, but tends to over pursue the play. With his size, it’s also difficult for him to support as a run defender. Alexander plays the ball in coverage and has one more chance to make an impression before his college playing days are over.

Appalachian State offensive players to watch

  • X WR Corey Sutton
  • RB Cameron Peoples
  • Z WR Jalen Virgil

We really like the potential of wide receiver Corey Sutton (6’1″ 213 lbs) as a boundary receiver in the NFL. Sutton is explosive and has the ability to make big time catches – especially in the red zone. The main issue with Sutton has been consistency – his hands haven’t been all that consistent over the last several years. Despite that, his frame and physical play style make him an intriguing prospect in the class.

Cameron Peoples (6’2″ 210 lbs) isn’t a guarantee to go pro, but he’s a big bodied downhill running back that many NFL teams crave. He has room to expand on his frame, too, but still has good speed once he hits the open field to outrun secondaries. He’s one of my favorite running backs in college football.

Jalen Virgil (6’0″ 210 lbs) is the other big play receiver who has also been very productive in his time at Appalachian State. Virgil was more of the speed option for the Mountaineers on offense. His capability to break big plays after the catch was his biggest threat. Virgil offers immediate special teams ability, potentially, and upside to be a mid-tier #2 receiver in the league.

Appalachian State defensive players to watch

It’s hard not to like the things that D’Marco Jackson (6’0″ 230 lbs) brings to the field. A strong, downhill linebacker type who flies to fill running lanes, Jackson is an old school linebacker type that would have been coveted across the league fifteen to twenty years ago. However, linebackers are asked to do much more now than they used to, and Jackson is a potential liability in pass coverage. Despite that, he could be a very strong off-ball linebacker that teams use in situations where the base defense is on the field and the nickel defender is on the sideline.

Another player flying under the radar this draft cycle is DT Demetrius Taylor (6’0″ 295 lbs). His quickness and agility are highlighted on tape as his ability to get back in the backfield quickly is extraordinary. Despite his large size, Taylor has played mostly as a 5-tech in the Mountaineers scheme, but his professional upside is as an interior defender in a 4-3 defense. He’s a very strong gap defender with a ton of upside.

Shaun Jolly (5’8″ 180) has been on our radar for the last two seasons. A good athlete with adequate speed and explosion, Jolly is a good tackler despite his lack of size. The issue with his game is that he’s too small to play on the perimeter in the NFL, and he lacks a lot of ability in press. Jolly has his final chance to make a big impression against one of the most prolific passing offenses in college football history.

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By John Vogel

NFL Draft Analyst. Dad.

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