Now thriving for ranked Liberty, former Auburn QB Malik Willis is the ultimate feel-good transfer portal story
After finishing up practice and a workout, Malik Willis made his way to Liberty’s virtual press conference setup. As he sat down in front of a screen with a handful of media members, the Flames’ quarterback offered a greeting.
“How’s everybody doin’? I don’t see no smiles. Everybody lookin’ mad.”
Willis has all the reason to smile these days. He’s the starting quarterback for a Liberty program that just clinched its first appearance in the Associated Press Top 25 a week after it improved to 6-0. The Flames got there thanks to a 442-yard, 7-touchdown performance from Willis (a program record) in a 56-35 win against Southern Miss. In Willis’ first season as an FBS starter, he’s averaging 323 yards from scrimmage and 3 touchdowns for the nation’s No. 16 scoring offense.
But don’t bother talking to Willis about how successful of a start he’s had. “That’s in the garbage,” Willis likes to say about the past.
The past, however, was what got Willis to this point. That is, leading a Top 25 program in Year 3 at the FBS level. It took him running into a dead end at Auburn to follow the detour to Lynchburg, Virginia. If you’re looking for a tale of what happens when the transfer portal works, look no further than Willis.
He’s in an offense where his true dual-threat skill-set is shining with Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. Entering Saturday’s showdown against Virginia Tech, Willis ranks No. 22 in FBS in quarterback rating (160.3) and he’s No. 1 among FBS quarterbacks in rushing (495 yards). Defensive teammates like linebacker Anthony Butler said, “there’s not a throw he can’t make on the field,” while defensive tackle Ralfs Rusins called Willis “an animal in the running game.” It’s hard to argue with either of those things.
Former Auburn QB Malik Willis continues to excel for 5-0 (and soon-to-be 6-0) Liberty.
Through 25 minutes of game action today, has already thrown for 192 yards and four touchdowns. Has also run for 56 yards, including 23 on this impressive scramble.
— Matt Zenitz (@mzenitz) October 24, 2020
It might not have earned the national attention of non-Power 5 programs like BYU or Coastal Carolina, but Willis’ dominant start wasn’t news to his former coach.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s doing as well as he’s doing,” said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. “I think that offense is really a perfect fit for him.”
Malzahn had a hunch that would be the case back when Willis entered the transfer portal following Auburn’s 2019 spring game. After Willis spent 2 years as Jarrett Stidham’s primary backup — that included first-team reps in the spring of 2018 when Stidham recovered from shoulder surgery — he struggled with consistency throughout the following spring. Willis did, however, deliver arguably the top highlight of Auburn’s 2019 A-Day:
#Auburn Redshirt Freshman WR Matthew Hill (6’1” 190) made some excellent plays in the spring game. This over the shoulder catch, in traffic, for the TD from Malik Willis was one of the toughest catches I’ve seen a WR make in a while. Very good awareness & concentration #devy #CFF pic.twitter.com/U0x9SfpysN
— Jason DiRienzo (@allpurposescout) April 19, 2019
Despite Willis’ 9-for-10 performance as a passer in the spring game, Malzahn narrowed the quarterback battle to true freshman Bo Nix and redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood 2 weeks later.
That decision was two-fold. Obviously Malzahn wanted to get his first-time starter as many first-team reps as possible. But it also gave Willis the summer to explore other options with 2 years of eligibility remaining.
“Quarterbacks want to play,” Malzahn said. “We just wanted to make sure everything was clear as far as the way that we left spring and giving him the opportunity to go somewhere and play.”
That recruiting process included Malzahn talking to his old friend and former SEC West coaching foe, Freeze.
It was Freeze’s first year on the job at Liberty after a 2-year hiatus from coaching following his tumultuous exit at Ole Miss. Soon after Freeze saw Willis in the transfer portal, he paid his old friend a phone call.
“Man, Gus’ first words to me were, ‘What an incredible kid he is. Great teammate and obviously a very good athlete,’” Freeze said. “He couldn’t give him enough high marks on the type of person he is. I wanted to know that first … Gus’ recommendation on him really gave me the green light to go on him.”
Freeze remembered when Willis came to Lynchburg on his official visit. He didn’t need a host and he wasn’t interested in talking about campus life or academics. All Willis wanted to do was talk ball, so that’s what they did.
On Friday, Saturday and even before he left on Sunday, Freeze and Willis sat down and drew up plays on the board. Freeze wanted to test Willis’ understanding of his offensive philosophy. What does he see on this read? What happens if a defense comes out in this coverage? To Freeze’s delight, Willis was a quick learner.
“I kinda knew when he was on his official visit that I could really coach this kid,” Freeze said. “I think I can be hard on him, I think I can be demanding on him and he wants to please.”
But what did Willis know about Freeze and his offense before he got to Liberty?
“I knew (Freeze) was low-key. The opposite of Malzahn,” Willis said with a laugh. “He’d rather throw it half the time than, ‘Oh, we have a great running back, we have a great offensive line. Let’s run it.’ (Freeze) is, ‘Let’s take what the defense gives us.’ I really appreciate that.”
The numbers back that up, too. In a reserve role at Auburn, Willis attempted twice as many runs (28) as he did passes (14). At Liberty, he actually attempted almost twice as many passes (131) as he did runs (71).
That’s been a work in progress. Willis’ decision-making with the run-pass options have come a long way from his time at Auburn. During a film study with Freeze and TV reporter Emily Austen, the Liberty coach said that Willis’ strides were “monumental.” Freeze added that “he couldn’t be more pleased” with the decision-making. Even in a game like Louisiana-Monroe when Willis’ numbers were down, Freeze said that he still had an off-the-charts decision-making grade. It was execution that needed improving.
To say that Liberty feels like a different chapter than Auburn would be an understatement for Willis.
“It was a lifetime ago,” Willis said. “That’s way in the past. What was long was that year sittin’ out. That’s what was long.”
Willis certainly had some extra time to learn Freeze’s variation of the RPO-based system, though not by choice. He had hoped to get immediate eligibility at Liberty in 2019 but was denied by the NCAA.
Instead of treating it as a year off, Willis took it as a chance to earn the respect of his new teammates. “It wasn’t the time for him to have a setback because he was just coming off a setback,” Liberty safety Javon Scruggs said. So Willis did exactly what he should’ve done in that spot; he ran scout team. Someone who, as Freeze said, wasn’t a particularly good practice player turned that around. Quickly, Willis made his presence felt.
“That leadership role that he brought in,” Scruggs said, “everybody knew from Day 1 that he was gonna be the guy.”
When Willis got his opportunity to be the guy in 2020, he didn’t waste it. Freeze named him the starter in fall camp and didn’t look back. The same leadership qualities that were evident during his year running the scout team were even more evident when Willis got his first real taste of success at the FBS level.
“Probably the most humble person I know,” Liberty center Tom Sargeant said. “We’ll tell him after a play, ‘Dude, that was a great throw,’ and he’s like, ‘Nah, I couldn’t have done it without y’all.’”
Malik Willis (2 tweets)
*Finally starting to get the attention he deserves. 345yds passing, 97yds rushing, 7tot tds
— QB Spotlight (@QBspotlight) October 26, 2020
Willis admitted he wouldn’t be at this point without what he had to learn at Auburn. There’s no bad blood there.
If there’s any sense of bitterness after he watched a pair of quarterbacks recruited under him surpass him on the depth chart, you’d be hard-pressed to find it.
“I appreciate being at Auburn with the strength and conditioning staff that they have, and I learned a lot about football in a general sense,” Willis said. “I think this offense here is great, and if I would’ve been in it out of high school, I don’t know what would’ve happened.
“But everything happens for a reason, and God put me in this position for a reason. He’s not gonna give me anything I can’t handle. I don’t look in the past.”
In the immediate future is a showdown against a Virginia Tech squad that Willis was committed to all the way up until Signing Day in 2017.
Originally, the plan was for the Roswell High School (Ga.) star to attend the program that gave him his first big-time offer. But he was recruited by the Hokies as an “athlete” to play quarterback, receiver or defensive back. His heart was set on just playing quarterback. “I was like, ‘That’s a long way for me to go somewhere and not play where I want to play,’” Willis said. In stepped Auburn, which gave him a chance to play quarterback … and it made his decision even easier that it was just an hour and a half away from his hometown.
Go figure that 3 years later, Willis is playing in a key intrastate battle in Virginia.
There’s not any ill will toward Virginia Tech, either. Willis said he appreciated how up front they were about where they saw him playing as a recruit. He’s grateful to have gotten the same sort of clear communication with Auburn once it was clear that he wasn’t going to be the guy.
He’s also grateful to have found a coach who put faith in him to run the offense, which as Freeze said, isn’t always an easy thing to master with all of its complexities and moving parts. Freeze added that there’s still room for improvement with Willis’ game, mainly not fumbling. Willis would be the first one to admit that he’s far from a finished product. Fortunately for him, he has a coach who knows how to push the right buttons in practice.
“Sometimes I’m a bit sarcastic, to quarterbacks in particular,” Freeze said. “He probably hadn’t experienced that part of me. While I don’t yell and scream too much at him, I can say things that cut. I have to tell him, ‘You know I believe in you, right?’”
If the saying goes “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” it deserves a tweak for Willis. He wasn’t Auburn’s trash; he just wasn’t its treasure. Then again, Willis is the guy who likes to say the past “is in the garbage.”
Those are wise words, especially from someone with a present — and future — that’s worth smiling about.