Earlier this week, Conference USA announced the winners of the 2021 Players of the Year as the league’s somewhat tumultuous year ended with a bang at the Alamodome. As far as individual performances go, the surprises did not come in the form of who did well, but in the extent to which some of these guys stood out amongst their competition.
That being said, there’s always room for debate. Message boards would be a much more boring place if that wasn’t the case. Our staff gave their thoughts on who the brightest stars were in C-USA in 2021.
Offensive Player of the Year
Joe Londergan: It has to be Bailey Zappe. Obviously, C-USA took the route of naming Zappe the league’s Most Valuable Player, which meant Sincere McCormick took home their offensive player of the year since they don’t do double awards typically. For the sake of being professional, I’ll lay out some stats: third in career passing touchdowns at WKU after one season, 56 passing touchdowns this season (four away from the NCAA single-season record), 5545 yards.
For the sake of being unprofessional, I’ll say that Zappe not even being in the top ten for Heisman votes and not even being a finalist for the Davey O’Brien Award is a travesty.
Jared Kalmus: I feel some type of way about selecting Bailey Zappe over Frank Harris after Harris out-dueled him twice this year... but Zappe’s body of work over the season is impossible to deny. Not only did Zappe shatter some gaudy records in Conference USA, but he also created a new blueprint on how to revitalize an offense in college football via the transfer portal.
Eric Henry: The answer is undoubtedly Bailey Zappe. At the risk of triggering certain fanbases who will remain unnamed with this analogy, when Lebron James entered the NBA in 2003, the expectations for him were astronomical. 18 years later, arguably his greatest achievement as an athlete is that he’s lived up to — if not exceed those expectations. Western Kentucky’s signal-caller managed to live up to the preseason hype and in my opinion, he’s been even better than advertised.
Defensive Player of the Year
Joe: Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited that my preseason pick for DPOTY came to fruition. However, the argument could have been made for a few different guys. Namely, Clarence Hicks of UTSA. Hicks was the league leader in sacks, and only had a 0.5 less TFLs than Malone. Praise Amaewhule of UTEP was also great, Jordan Ferguson of MTSU was great, KD Davis led a massively improved group at North Texas (towards the end of the year anyway). If I had to pick, I probably would have given it to Hicks.
Jared: No player had a greater impact on the outcome of games than UTSA outside linebacker Clarence Hicks. The league-leader in sacks, Hicks was able to completely take over games against Memphis, Louisiana Tech, WKU, and others this season. Opponents tried many different tactics to slow down Hicks’ pass rush this season but no matter how many cut blocks, double teams, and triple teams were thrown at Hicks he still found a way to deliver huge plays when the game was on the line, none more crucial than his unbelievable diving interception to beat Western Kentucky in the conference championship preview.
Eric: Clarence Hicks was undoubtedly the top defensive player in the league this year. Yes, his sacks came in bunches, but — it’s about when those sacks came, opposed to how they occurred. Two sacks against UAB, Memphis and the C-USA title game against Western Kentucky. DeAngelo Malone is an excellent player whose had an excellent career, but this should have been Hicks’ award.
Special Teams Player of the Year
Joe: I’ll probably catch some flack for this, but I’m always hesitant to give this award to a punter. Not to say that punters aren’t important, but if your punter gets a lot of attention, that typically means your offense is pretty bad. So, I’m going to give this one to UTSA kicker Hunter Duplessis. He led the league in made field goals, and made a lot of critical kicks for UTSA on the way to their conference championship, including that 51-yard game-winner at Memphis.
Jared: FIU didn’t do much winning on the field this year but they weren’t without individual talents. Punter Tommy Heatherly was among the standouts. He averaged 47 yards per punt, with 12 touchbacks and 21 pins within the opponent’s own 20-yard line.
Eric: Joe and I will fight on the next podcast. Because I’m highly disappointed in his reasoning against punters — specifically, Tommy Heatherly. Lucas Dean won the award last season and UTSA had a pretty solid offense in 2020. Just basing it off Dean’s production, Heatherly blew Dean out of the water. I’m absolutely biased here as our FIU writer. However, watching Heatherly punt in-person is a treat and we’ll continue to do so at the next level.
Freshman Player of the Year
Joe: In terms of classification, Marshall running back Rasheen Ali is technically a freshman and he was absolutely fantastic this season. But, I understand why this isn’t given to “COVID freshmen.” I think Charlotte’s Elijah Spencer was deserving of the award, but do want to mention two freshmen from UNT in running back Ayo Adeyi and center Gabe Blair for being big pieces of the most productive rushing attack in C-USA this season.
Jared: It’s a tough choice this year as they are many players worthy of the honors. I’m going to stick with Conference USA’s rule of disqualifying “Covid” freshmen who played last season. Louisiana Tech wide receiver Bub Means looked impressive as a deep threat for the Bulldogs’ passing game this season as he hauled in 22 catches for 430 yards (19.5 yards per catch).
Eric: My choice would be either Elijah Spencer or Ayo Adeyi. Like Joe and Jared, I’m a fan of giving this award to true freshmen, opposed to players who have had a couple of years in the program. Spencer’s player grew as the season progressed and that’s what you’re looking for out of freshman.
Newcomer of the Year
Joe: Jerreth Sterns won the official award and I think that was a no-brainer. Sterns had 137 receptions (a single-season C-USA record), 1,718 yards and 14 touchdowns led all league receivers. Sterns is the national leader in catches, receptions per game (10.6), receiving yards and receiving yards per game (132.2). If you’re not going to give this to Zapper himself, I’m not sure there was any other newcomer who came close to being this important to his team’s success.
Jared: I’d actually like to give this award to the entire group of former Houston Baptist Huskies who packed up their things and moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky last offseason. Bailey Zappe, Ben Ratzlaff, Jerreth and Josh Sterns, and former Offensive Coordinator Zach Kittley all accomplished something extremely unique and memorable.
Eric: I’m in agreement with the group here. Zappe certainly earned his award as the league’s top offensive player, but to not see Sterns pick up any postseason individual recognition would be criminal. In my opinion, the nation’s top wideout played in Bowling Green this year.
Coach of the Year
Joe: I’m continually impressed by Jeff Traylor and I think he absolutely deserved the award this year. The way he’s developed and improved this team since he took over has been amazing to watch and it all came to a head in a conference championship this year, including beating, arguably, the NCAA’s best offense twice. I know there’s no award for assistant coach of the year in C-USA, but Zach Kittley transformed WKU’s offense into a spectacle and the most improved offensive attack in the nation by a significant margin scoring more than three more touchdowns a game than last season.
Jared: I feel like Dana Dimel got the shaft a bit this year as winning seven games at UTEP is a monumental feat. That said, it’d be foolish to not hand this award to UTSA’s Jeff Traylor. It takes a good coach to win football games but it takes a great coach to win at a drastically higher rate than the program has ever seen before. Traylor bested UTSA’s program high in win total by four games, delivering the school’s first conference championship along the way.
Eric: Dana Dimel deserves all the kudos in the world for getting seven wins out of the Miners. That’s not to say that they’re not a good and talented team — it’s more to say about the state of that program in the past half-decade. Jeff Traylor’s year with the Roadrunners was phenomenal and by no means do I believe the standard should be going undefeated, but had they gone 13-0, I would favor Traylor.