Malik Willis’ second practice in a Liberty uniform focused on him staying in the pocket and delivering crisp passes on several different types of routes. Whether it was deep sideline route to DJ Stubbs or a quick out to Khaleb Coleman, Willis looked comfortable delivering each pass.
Primarily used as a running threat out of the backfield for two seasons at Auburn, Willis’ focus is to prove he can be a true dual-threat quarterback after transferring to Liberty in July.
“That’s one of the top reasons actually,” Willis said Sunday after practice. “Just [Liberty coach Hugh Freeze’s] faith in me and just the energy he brings, it just attracted me to this place.”
Willis’ father, Harold, said in July his son was planning on appealing to the NCAA for immediate eligibility. Freeze said Sunday the paperwork has not been submitted to the NCAA, and the university’s compliance office “is gathering the documents from all the parties that are important and we’ll forward them on to the NCAA hopefully sometime next week and hopefully get a quick turnaround.”
Willis will continue practicing with the team and preparing with the mindset he will be eligible for the upcoming season. The junior did not redshirt while at Auburn, so he has three years to play two and can redshirt if the NCAA rules he is not eligible to play this season.
“I am looking for that, but it’s a matter not in my hands,” Willis said. “I’m just going to wait it out and see what happens. I also have a redshirt and two years to play, so if even if I don’t get it, I’m just losing a year. It is what it is when it comes to that.”
Willis made 15 appearances in his two seasons at Auburn, completing 11 of 14 passes for 69 yards and one touchdown. He also rushed for 309 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries.
The Atlanta, Georgia, native saw ample playing time in the Tigers’ 53-0 drubbing of the Flames late last season, but only attempted three passes and completed two for 13 yards. He also rushed for a 16-yard touchdown late in the third quarter to cap the scoring.
“Nothing against [Auburn], but I didn’t get the opportunity to throw as much, and that’s another reason I came here,” Willis said. “Coach Freeze’s offense, they really air it out and I’ll have an opportunity to show what I can do.”
Willis entered the transfer portal in May and chose to transfer to Liberty over Troy, a team the Flames defeated last season in Lynchburg.
“It was a tough decision, but it was one I made looking at the long run,” he said. “Liberty is on the up and up, and you’ve seen in the schedule, they’re taking steps to move themselves up in the FBS world and I just want to help be a part of it.”
His addition immediately gives the quarterback group added experience and maturity. Senior Buckshot Calvert is the entrenched starter, but behind him is a wealth of young talent that doesn’t have much, if any, college experience.
Redshirt junior Henry Van Dellen played in four games in the 2017 season with North Dakota State, completing 4 of 9 passes for 27 yards while also rushing for 33 yards and one touchdown on five carries. Redshirt sophomore Landon Brown, redshirt freshman Brandon Robinson and true freshmen Johnathan Bennett and Will Bowers have not taken a snap in a college game.
“Malik brought some swag to the room that we didn’t have,” Bennett said. “It’s really nice to have him in the room. He’s got some speed to it and we’ve seen it in practice, and he can throw the ball really good, too. People don’t know that, but he can throw the ball really well, too. He’s a great addition to have on the team.”
Willis was the fourth quarterback to see action during Sunday’s practice behind Calvert, Bennett and Robinson. He displayed poise and accuracy with his decision-making, and he was quick to seek out co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kent Austin when he had questions about the offense.
“He’s a true dual-threat quarterback and he’s pretty scary out in space when he’s got the ball in his hand. He’s got a great arm, he brings a level of maturity also to that room,” Austin said. “We’re pretty young; after we get past Buck, we’re pretty young in that room. Because he’s been at a high level for a couple of years and has had that level of coaching in that environment, he brings those qualities into that room.
“He’s a complete gym rat, he just wants to learn and study and he loves the game. I think it’s pretty enduring and we believe it’s pretty enduring to his teammates. He prepares well and it matters to him. He really has the desire to be really good, which is 80% of the battle.”
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Willis said he still has room to grow and develop as a quarterback, even with the two years of seasoning he received at Auburn. He has been approachable to his teammates and is quick to offer advice to the younger players.
Calvert said he’s already developed a friendship with Willis and has already learned several elements of the game to help him entering his final college season.
“It’s been a great group adding Malik with all of us. We’re all learning something new from each other, taking different tools and techniques from each other,” Calvert said. “ … We’re definitely feeding off each other’s energy, and it’s a good group.”