A program that has only been around since 1973, Liberty University is a school that’s beginning to hit its stride on the football side. Closing in on 50 years of being an established program, it is one that has experienced a continuous rise through the lowest level of competition as an NAIA participant prior to moving up to the Division II ranks during its early stages.
Its claim to fame came when officially turning into an FCS participant in 2006, where the Flames would go on a remarkable run of winning eight Big South conference titles from 2007-2016. Feeling as if they were in a position to continue to up their competition level, the program officially became an FBS member in 2018.
After the hiring of Hugh Freeze, the team posted its first eight-win season in a half-decade in 2019 and first-ever win over an ACC opponent in 2020 after a 38-21 victory against Syracuse—they also had a miraculous 38-35 victory over Virginia Tech later that season. The engineer of the offensive attack, Malik Willis, is a name that has received quite a bit of hype during the summer months.
Starting his career at Auburn, Willis was essentially beaten out in the quarterback competition by Bo Nix. Wanting to explore his options and seek a potential starting job elsewhere, he landed at Liberty and became the catalyst for one of the more explosive offenses in the country.
Sitting out of the 2019 season to fulfill transfer obligations, Willis returned in 2020 and became one of the biggest breakout stars in college football. Orchestrating Freeze’s offense, he led the team in total offense (3,204 yards), passing yards (2,260), and passing touchdowns (20) while also accumulating the most rushing yards of any signal-caller in the nation (944).
Summer scouting is always one of my favorite parts of the process because each prospect has a blank canvas as the start of a new evaluation period begins. After having Joe Burrow and Zach Wilson, two players that saw exponential amounts of growth in their development, everyone is scrambling to search who could be the next example under center that turns into a high first-round draft pick.
Willis’ ascension wouldn’t be seen as quite the same as he’s a well-known commodity now, but many eyes will be glued on him this upcoming season to see if he can tap into the next stages of his development.
The Good: The first trait that immediately stands out about Willis is his body construction. While he hovers around six-foot-tall, he contains a stout, compact, and chiseled frame—a well proportioned and evenly distributed body frame that's evident throughout his game. Specifically as a runner, he’s a large chunk of the Flames' rushing attack in multiple ways.
They are able to use him on zone-read, counters, and on frequent bootleg or rollout plays off of their designed run concepts. Willis isn’t just a runner, but he’s a creator and natural competitor that understands how to utilize and thrive through contact. With plenty of extra body armor on his frame, it’s frequent to see him step through tackles or fend off body blows.
A dynamic athlete, he has the capabilities to easily get himself out of harm’s way when necessary. His added dimension as a runner adds an 11th-man element to the offense as he can allow offensive coordinators to use running backs or other personnel strictly as blockers since Willis is an asset in the running game. Falling into the category of the “make you miss” type, he has some wiggle in open spaces to elude defenders but is more of the “take you on and shake you off” type of rusher. His running style creates extra opportunities for himself and he had an outstanding rushing touchdown against Southern Mississippi last season (below, second play) that exudes this exact type of running style.
Incorporating his threat as a runner to defenses mixed in with his most vital asset, a very strong arm, he places high amounts of stress on defenses. Willis’ arm is plenty strong and he’s capable of making many difficult throws in all directions. While Freeze’s offense isn't heavy concept-based, when he allowed his then first-year starter to exhaust a progression and perform multiple steps on them, he performed throws that displayed how explosive of an arm that Willis possesses.
Now, with this upcoming season being his second in the offense, we could see Freeze place more on his plate from a conceptual standpoint where Willis is able to show consistency with multi-steps combined with his elusiveness as a rushing threat.
The Improvable: As it currently stands, Willis’ biggest flaw is that he’s a natural flame thrower with little awareness of knowing when to place touch on the ball. Ironically enough, he’s sufficient with his down-the-field touch, as he’s able to get up on his toes upon releasing the ball and drop it in the bucket, but it’s the short-to-intermediate areas where he’s a fastball-only pitcher in that he throws passes that are too hot for his targets to handle.
With many of his passes in the underneath areas coming out hot and hard, his ball placement suffers. Placing more touch and using anticipation are developed skills over time. With the 2021 season only being his second known stretch of games where he knows he’ll be the entrenched starter during the opening game of the season, we could see Willis make strides in those departments.
Another element that Willis will need to become more consistent with is his lapses in identifying middle-of-the-field safeties. Oftentimes, he has single coverage or one-on-one matchups that he likes, but he’s oblivious to the placement of safeties in coverage.
Failing to identify them has resulted in gimme interceptions that have fallen right into the laps of safeties. Cleaning up simple pre-snap errors and lack of satisfying post-snap coverage reads is a major step into the next level of his development.
Through its almost 50-year history, Liberty has yet to see a quarterback drafted from its program. If able to replicate his success from a season ago, Willis has a strong chance of breaking yet another program record.
"Resume games" have become a universal scouting term regarding matchups evaluators will have circled when watching prospects. Syracuse (Sept. 24) and Ole Miss (Nov. 6) are the two that scouts will likely watch first when evaluating the Liberty leader, but in what's already been labeled as a bland quarterback group, Willis has the potential to add plenty of flavor within it if able to take the next step in his development.
- Dec 06, 2022
- Dec 05, 2022