‘I am unable to imagine he simply did that’: The rise of Liberty’s Malik Willis


Coach Hugh Freeze and Liberty are dealing with a fourth-and-3 from Virginia Tech’s 38-yard line early within the second quarter, and two issues are abundantly clear.

The Flames are going for it, and the ball goes to be in star quarterback Malik Willis‘ arms.

Liberty, on this present day final November, is ranked for the primary time in program historical past — however nonetheless probably not taken significantly — as 17-point underdogs at unranked Virginia Tech.

Willis appears throughout the road of scrimmage on the Hokies, this system that was one of many few Division I faculties to initially provide him a scholarship, even when it could seemingly be at defensive again as an alternative of his most well-liked quarterback place.

He takes the snap and is sort of instantly met by defensive again Chamarri Conner. It ought to be a turnover on downs, the form of defensive cease that might swing the sport again in Virginia Tech’s favor.

However Willis spins off Conner, continues rolling to his proper and throws a strike down the sideline to vast receiver Kevin Shaa, who will get a foot in bounds to set Liberty up on the 3-yard line.

“I simply shook my head up within the field,” Liberty co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kent Austin stated. “I am like, ‘I am unable to imagine he simply did that.'”

Two performs later, the Flames take a 14-3 lead and would ultimately maintain on for a wild 38-35 victory, arguably the most important at school historical past.

In a season stuffed with highlights — Willis accomplished 64.2% of his passes for two,250 yards and 20 touchdowns with six interceptions, whereas dashing for 944 yards and 14 extra scores — that is the play that will outline Liberty’s current turnaround and Willis’ seemingly limitless future potential.

“I am unsure what different quarterback in school soccer, and it is gotta be a small listing within the NFL that may make that play,” stated Sean McEvoy, one among Willis’ personal QB coaches who additionally works with a plethora of the perfect collegiate and professional quarterbacks.

In his first season as a university beginning quarterback, that throw made one factor readily obvious:

Malik Willis had arrived.

Willis’ highschool profession began at Atlanta’s Westlake Excessive College, greatest often known as the alma mater of Cam Newton, however he did not play quarterback full time till his senior yr, when he transferred to Roswell. However nobody was biting on him as a recruit the way in which he felt they need to have been.

Finally Willis dedicated to Virginia Tech in June 2016. 5 months later, he would decommit and go together with Auburn and then-coach Gus Malzahn.

Auburn wasn’t planning on taking a highschool quarterback in that class, as a result of it was the category after it introduced Jarrett Stidham in from Baylor (who needed to sit out a season). When beginning quarterback Sean White bought harm on the finish of 2016, the Tigers realized they wanted to herald a highschool quarterback to develop.

“Clearly, we have had success with Nick Marshall, Cam Newton and people guys,” stated present Miami offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who initially recruited Willis to Auburn. “And so Malik was a man who performed for John Ford up at Roswell. … So we reached out to John, began speaking with Malik and realized despite the fact that he dedicated to Virginia Tech, he undoubtedly had some curiosity in Auburn, staying near house and taking part in at Auburn.

“For me, he simply reminded us a variety of Nick. I imply, he was lengthy, he was athletic, he may actually run, throw the deep ball nicely.”

When Willis arrived at Auburn, he was buried down the depth chart, however he rapidly labored his approach as much as being Stidham’s backup. However Willis wasn’t capable of present what he was totally able to due to restricted snaps and restricted choices in these snaps.

“Even after they had been up 30 factors within the fourth quarter, it was very restricted time,” stated Sean McEvoy, one among Willis’ personal QB coaches. “… So even when he was in, he wasn’t allowed to do something. He definitely wasn’t gonna be capable to throw. So I believe that was powerful on him.”

Willis knew he wanted to go after Auburn’s spring sport in 2018, when he did not get reps towards the primary staff.

“I used to be like, ‘Dang, like, no love?'” Willis stated. “After the sport, [Malzahn] stated I did nearly good. After which the following day, he was like, ‘Uh, yeah, we’re gonna should slim down the competitors.’ This and that, after which I simply took that, I used to be like, ‘OK, I gotta go away.'”

Willis, who admires Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson for a way he makes use of his athletic success as a platform for his spiritual beliefs, leaned on his religion in in search of his subsequent vacation spot. All he needed was an opportunity.

“I do not assume there’s nothing in life that I prayed for, that I did not obtain, in a approach, form or kind,” Willis stated. “He gonna provide you with what you want and he gonna give it to you on his time. There’s nothing you are able to do about it — you simply bought to remain devoted.”

“I keep in mind, like actually being like, ‘Please, like, can I simply have a chance to go someplace and present what I can do?’ After which I simply requested, always, “Simply let me glorify your identify, nonetheless you need me to, let me use this platform.”

Willis did not know a lot about Liberty previous to his official go to.

“I wanted to have the ability to come someplace to play,” he stated. “I stated someplace that had a necessity. That was all. I did not actually care about nothing else. It did not matter the place I needed to go.”

Willis checked his every day Bible verse app the day earlier than his official go to to Liberty in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the app displayed 2 Corinthians 3:17.

Now the Lord is the Spirit and the place the Spirit of the Lord is, there’s Liberty.

The following day, when Willis walked into Liberty’s facility, he noticed the verse on the wall.

“I am like, ‘Ain’t no approach. Ain’t no approach.’ I ain’t even inform no one that,” Willis stated. “I simply form of like stored it to myself. However I knew proper then I used to be like, ‘Yep, this the place I am imagined to go.'”

So on July 9, 2019, Willis dedicated to Liberty, however he needed to sit out the yr due to his switch.

The connection between Willis and Freeze has been mutually helpful from the beginning. For Willis, Freeze’s QB-friendly offense permits him to point out off all these elite expertise. For Freeze, he is bought a quarterback who can reap the benefits of his offensive thoughts.

“You already know, the numbers do not lie,” Freeze stated. “For those who have a look at my entire profession, whether or not it was at little ol’ Lambeth College, to Arkansas State, to Ole Miss to right here, we have shattered offensive information in any respect of these faculties. And we have achieved it with quite a lot of totally different quarterbacks.

“My first yr right here, I had Buckshot (Stephen Calvert), who could not outrun me. And so, you understand, I’ve bought to get rid of this half of my playbook most likely for him. And we did, and we nonetheless received.”

However earlier than Willis may take the sphere, Liberty turned engulfed in controversy following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the police homicide of George Floyd.

Jerry Falwell Jr., then the college president, despatched a racist tweet that confirmed one individual in blackface and one other in a Ku Klux Klan hood and gown. A day later, Asia Todd, a freshman on Liberty’s ladies’s basketball staff, announced she was transferring “as a result of racial insensitivities proven throughout the management and tradition” on the faculty.

Tayvion “Tank” Land and Kei’Trel Clark, two cornerbacks on the Liberty soccer staff, transferred out, with Land citing “racial insensitivity displayed by management” and Clark mentioning the “cultural [incompetence] inside a number of ranges of management.” Land later advised Slate of an incident by which a professor allegedly stated, “Do not be scared. I am not going to tug out my whip and hit you with it.”

Willis stated he was good associates with Land however did not know the small print of the incident. He added he wasn’t conscious of Falwell and his political leanings previous to arriving at Liberty, that he personally felt comfy on the college and that “nothing ever occurred to me.”

Willis took lessons on campus at Liberty throughout his 2019 redshirt yr however has since solely needed to seem at Liberty’s soccer facility, even to do his classwork. He is taking on-line programs for grad faculty, going for his MBA.

“Soccer brings folks collectively from totally different backgrounds, totally different environments, totally different cultures, totally different religions, all varieties of stuff,” Willis stated. “You simply bought to be open, you understand, talk with one another and attempt to perceive each other. And that is simply what’s gonna deliver y’all nearer. You already know, siblings and cousins and stuff, they struggle, however they get proper again collectively as a result of they’s household. That is the way it ought to be.”

Willis knew three issues he appreciated about Liberty: Hugh Freeze and his offense was there; it is an establishment that locations significance on religion; and Freeze’s power and conditioning workers from Mississippi was there.

“These had been the three issues I wanted to listen to,” he stated. “I do not care about, ‘The varsity does not have this and that as a result of it is a Christian faculty.’ For us it doesn’t matter. So what? That is what I got here for.

“I got here to work,” he stated. “I got here to work.”

Liberty’s soccer staff is lifting on a Wednesday morning in mid-July, and Moneybagg Yo is dominating performs over the audio system booming by Liberty’s $20 million facility situated behind the north finish zone at Williams Stadium. “Run This City” by Jay-Z and Rihanna briefly comes on however is skipped for extra Moneybagg. The Flames are retaining a constant vibe in the course of the morning elevate.

Willis goes as much as Ralfs Rusins, a redshirt senior defensive deal with, and begins hyping him up, patting him on the again and shoulders, smiling, having a superb time.

Rusins asks Willis, “You need to do dumbbell rows with me?” and proceeds to tug out a 150-pound dumbbell. Willis responds, “I am going to do ’em with you, however I am unable to do 10 reps of that, brother. Not three units.”

Willis, who has been free and having fun with the lifting session, knocked out units with a 120-pound dumbbell. If a stranger walked into the room, they seemingly could not determine Willis because the quarterback due to his linebacker-esque construct. And as groups came upon final fall, Willis has the strongest arm on the sphere, and essentially the most velocity.

Regardless of exhibiting off these expertise each Saturday final fall, if you happen to had been to ask Willis what he did nicely in 2020, he could not provide you with a solution. Ask about what he must work on, although, and he’ll reply with an in depth catalogue of the performs he did not make.

“I swear I keep in mind each dangerous throw I made, prefer it’s ingrained in my reminiscence,” he stated.

However when Willis speaks of his 2020 season, he does not get down on himself. He’ll inform you about his errors, and why he made them. But it surely fuels him as he prepares to enter his second yr as a starter.

“I do not really feel like I had an incredible yr final yr,” Willis stated. “I really feel like I had a good yr for my first time taking part in, however I undoubtedly can enhance and simply construct this platform so I can hold glorifying God on the finish of the day.

“Now that I am in my second yr within the system, I perceive extra about what Coach Kent [Austin] is speaking to me about not simply figuring out protection, however understanding what the basics of protection are, what did every participant have to do with a view to do their job on protection on the defensive facet. Simply understanding that makes it quite a bit simpler … I simply really feel like I did not have that final yr. It was extra like, I used to be on the market. I knew protection, I knew the performs, however now I simply really feel extra comfy. And extra assured.”

Austin stated, “Malik’s bought an unbelievable work ethic. And he takes teaching. He is actually a man that wishes to enhance. And he does not need to waste a day in that enchancment trajectory … he involves work day-after-day, mentally to grasp schematically the sport and protection, but additionally basically and ensuring that he stays constant.”

Willis additionally tries to unfold that very same vitality with the staff in a management position.

“He does a very good job of holding different guys accountable,” Liberty co-offensive coordinator and vast receivers coach Maurice Harris stated. “He will get that if the entire guys round me are on their P’s and Q’s, so to talk, then we’ll be very, very profitable as a staff and taking part in at a excessive stage. So he has a very good, simply general mindset of what it takes for not only for him to achieve success, however for the staff to achieve success.”

Willis in the end did provide one factor he appreciated about 2020. “Successful,” stated Willis, who led the Flames to a 10-1 document, together with a 37-34 victory over Coastal Carolina within the Remedy Bowl. “I really feel like that is the one factor I appreciated about final yr.”

Neither head coach nor quarterback will provide you with an expectation of what Liberty ought to do on the sphere this season. Freeze admits he expects large issues out of Willis particularly, however the two are on the identical web page on the subject of every thing else. It is nearly getting higher day-after-day.

However the remainder of the soccer world can not help however gush over Willis’ expertise and the chances over how excessive he is likely to be chosen within the 2021 NFL draft. ESPN’s Todd McShay has Willis as his No. 7 overall prospect, whereas Mel Kiper Jr. has him at No. 15. (He’s the No. 3 QB for each analysts, behind solely Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler and North Carolina’s Sam Howell.)

His personal quarterback coaches — Quincy Avery and McEvoy — aren’t simply prepared to organize him for the NFL, but additionally the unfair criticism and scrutiny that always comes with being a Black quarterback and potential first-round decide.. Avery and McEvoy educated each Trey Lance and Justin Fields, with Fields specifically having disingenuous narratives growing round him within the months and weeks main as much as the draft.

They already know what the analysts are going to say: that his offense is not professional fashion sufficient, or he is not doing issues by way of studying a protection, or he will not or cannot undergo his progressions.

Avery stated, “He is doing all of the issues that each different school quarterback is doing. And he is doing them with much less expertise round him. And he is placing his guys in an incredible place to achieve success. So saying that, I’ll be not solely annoyed, however I am going to know that it is popping out and know that it is false.

“All of the issues that they need you to have the ability to do within the NFL in 2021 are issues that Malik does very well,” he added. “Pushes the ball down the sphere, can lengthen performs together with his legs, could possibly be a key cog in operating quarterback design runs or quarterback RPOs (run-pass choices). He can stretch the protection in so many alternative methods from how he can push the ball down the sphere or how easy of a runner he’s, like he’ll create a ton of points for groups in the way in which that he performs soccer, and I believe that we each know like, that is the place the sport goes.”

Freeze is aware of the NFL is trending that approach. He has had a number of NFL groups attain out and schedule Zoom calls with him concerning the offense Liberty is operating and what his favourite RPOs are. In the case of Willis particularly, Freeze hasn’t had these calls with NFL groups but.

“However they’re coming,” he stated. “And I believe everyone’s form of in a wait-and-see mode, to be trustworthy with Malik. … I do not know of anyone that is simply gonna say, as a result of he had one good yr, ‘To illustrate he is our man.’ And all this speak is nugatory except we put a product on the sphere in Yr 2 for him that’s equal or higher than what they’ve seen.”

Identical to the nice performs he made in 2020, Willis is not prepared to talk about his NFL potential. However he’ll acknowledge reaching his potential is one thing that he craves, after which some.

“That is one thing I pray for,” he stated. “‘Can I attain it?’ I simply pray for it, to succeed in the potential that I have been blessed with. That is it. And even after I attain it, cross it. Preserve going.”

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