Malik Willis could be the starting quarterback in the 2022 NFL draft. He and Kenny Pickett have been in contention for that title all draft season, and soon fans will have an answer as to which prospect will go first.
However, don’t write Willis off just because he went to a non-Power 5 school. He has applied for Liberty each of the past two seasons, but the former three-star recruit attracted interest from Power 5 programs during his 2016 recruiting.
Willis received offers from Virginia Tech and Auburn. He initially became involved with the Hokies but eventually ended up with Auburn for two seasons. He played a key role as Jarrett Stidham’s backup but ultimately decided to make the move ahead of the 2019 season.
From then on, Willis’s career took off. Now he’s a first-round pick in the 2022 NFL draft — and even a potential top 10 pick.
But why did Willis leave Auburn and what brought him to Liberty? Here are the details of Willis’ career-changing transfer.
Why Malik Willis moved from Auburn to Liberty
Willis initially transferred away from Auburn because he could not earn playing time. He stuck his two years with the Tigers behind Jarrett Stidham and played sparingly. He completed 11 of 14 passes for 69 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 309 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries in that limited action.
As the 2019 season began, Willis hoped he would get a chance to compete for the starting job. He played well during Auburn’s spring game, completing 9 of 10 passes for 85 yards and a touchdown. Nevertheless, then-coach Gus Malzahn told him that he was out of the question for the starting job.
“I was like, ‘Damn, no love?'” Willis told ESPN ahead of the 2021 college football season. “After the game, [Malzahn] said I did it almost perfectly. And then the next day he said, ‘Er, yeah, we have to slim down the competition.’ This and that, and then I just took this, I was like, ‘Okay, I have to go.'”
Why was Auburn willing to move away from Willis? For one, two freshman quarterbacks, Bo Nix (a true freshman) and Joey Gatewood (a redshirt), outplayed him in the spring game.
Second, Willis admitted he wasn’t exactly a movie hunter in Auburn. He knew the playbook, but he didn’t know the intricacies of the Auburn offense or opposing defense. He believes that his lack of engagement in the film space caused Malzahn to effectively disqualify him from the competition.
“[Malzahn] must not [tell me]. I knew it,” Willis said of his film study habits, per NFL Network. “I was so immature. I had just played really well in the spring game, but I learned the hard way that the spring game doesn’t matter. After that meeting, I decided I had to be better, but I had to find something else somewhere to play and find someone to help me get where I needed to be.”
Willis changed his approach when he joined Liberty. That helped him improve, as Flames offensive coordinator Kent Austin explained, but it took time as Willis just wasn’t used to the process.
“He transitioned and was completely receptive to watching movies from day one,” Austin said. “But for him it wasn’t so much about investing more time. He had to learn how to see movie. What to look out for and why. It’s not just about logging hours.”
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Why did Malik Willis join Liberty?
Willis chose Liberty for two reasons. First of all, he knew he had to be able to play at his next station, wherever that might be. After all, at the time of his move in 2019, he had just two years left to play.
“I had to be able to get somewhere to play,” Willis told ESPN. “I said anywhere there is a need. That’s all. I didn’t care about anything else. It didn’t matter where I had to go.”
The other aspect of Willis’ choice was rooted in his religious beliefs. He relied on his faith to guide him through the transfer process and recalled praying for a chance to play.
“I don’t believe there is anything in life that I have prayed for that I have not received in some way, shape or form,” Willis said. “He will give you what you need and he will give it to you in due time. There’s nothing you can do about it – you just have to stay faithful.
“I remember literally saying, ‘Please, can I just have an opportunity to go somewhere and show what I can do?’ And then I just kept saying, ‘Just let me glorify your name, however you want it, let me use this platform.’”
Willis found Liberty—an evangelical university—a good fit for him. He also felt like he was being given a sign that it was the right place. On the day of his visit, his daily Bible app showed a verse he saw painted on the wall of Liberty’s soccer field.
“I say, ‘There isn’t. There isn’t.’ I’m not telling anyone,” Willis said. “I just liked to keep it to myself. But I knew right away that I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s where I’m supposed to go.'”
Malik Willis Stats at Liberty
Willis has done well at Liberty and helped the Flames establish itself as an independent full-time FBS program. In his two years as a starter, Willis led Liberty to a 17-6 record. That included a 10-1 mark in 2020 despite missing a game that season.
Below is a look at how Willis is performing statistically this season with the Flames.
|Year||Comp %||Past farms||TDs exist||INT’s||Frenzied courtyards||Rush TDs|
Willis has presented more than solid figures. His combination of fantastic skills, good personality and high football IQ let his coaches know he would thrive at the NFL level.
“It’s real, it’s real,” said Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. “No one who knows Malik has any doubt that (NFL teams) are going to love him.”