Liberty's Malik Willis has been Senior Bowl's most impressive QB so far

MOBILE, Ala. — When Liberty quarterback Malik Willis says, "good morning," he expects a "good morning" in return. And not the half-assed "good morning" some media members offered him in return at the Senior Bowl media breakfast.

“No one says good morning anymore?" Willis asked rhetorically. "They just stare?”

That broke the ice. The media response was much stronger after that.

Scroll to continue with content

Willis' charm and natural leadership came through during his media session Wednesday. Later that afternoon, once he and his American Team teammates hit the field for the second Senior Bowl practice of the week, Willis' talent also shone through, in spite of the day's dreary weather.

Steady ran beaded down all morning and through the afternoon practice. Willis acted like a man who was happy to practice in any conditions, often celebrating good passes with a little dance or a mini celebration. It helped keep the energy high during the poor conditions.

And there were plenty of strong passes to celebrate.

MOBILE, ALABAMA - DECEMBER 18: Malik Willis #7 of the Liberty Flames reacts during the LendingTree Bowl at Hancock Whitney Stadium on December 18, 2021 in Mobile, Alabama. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Liberty's Malik Willis reacts during the LendingTree Bowl at Hancock Whitney Stadium on Dec. 18, 2021 in Mobile, Alabama. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Willis has the best arm talent of the six quarterbacks at the Senior Bowl this week — period. That's become clear through two days. He laced several impressive throws Wednesday, building off a solid but inconsistent showing the day prior.


The first throw that got the crowd's attention was a perfectly placed post pattern in the bread basket of Memphis wideout Calvin Austin III. Then there was the bootleg throw from an awkward angle, hitting San Diego State tight end Daniel Bellinger perfectly in stride on the corner route. Plus a few crisp shorter routes that showed off improved accuracy, decisiveness and fundamentals than we saw from him on Day 1.

And, when the moment called for it, Willis authored a few tailor-made scrambles, flashing his impressive athleticism. Twice he beat fast defenders to the edge on keepers, answering questions about whether his speed translates to the next level.

The 6-foot, 220-pound Willis is built like a power running back, but with a cannon for an arm. That combination of arm talent — the ball zipped out of his hand, even in the rain — and running ability makes Willis a perfect project for today's NFL.

Before practice, Willis spoke about wanting to be a more "cerebral" quarterback and not just a mobile one, a process that begun in earnest after he transferred from Auburn, where he mostly sat for two years, to Liberty. That's when his game took off, throwing for 5,107 yards, 47 TDs and 18 interceptions, completing 62.4% of his passes and averaging a hefty 8.5 yards per attempt.


“After leaving Auburn, I just decided I was going to be like a sponge to the game,” Willis said. “Just focused on taking my athleticism out of the picture and just focused on ... taking what the defense gives me. Use my athleticism when it was totally necessary.”

Of course, that athleticism also helped him run for 1,822 yards and 27 TDs the past two seasons. But for Willis, he wants the NFL to know he's focused on a take-what-the-defense-gives approach.

“I try not to have a set thing in my mind where I’m like, 'OK, I’m going to run this play. OK, I’m going to throw this play,'" he said.

Willis' flaws can't go ignored. He took too many sacks the past two years, including a whopping 50 last season; even behind a porous offensive line, some were on him. Willis also has scattershot accuracy and occasionally shaky decision-making.


But in a league replete with dual-threat talents, Willis fits the part. And in a QB draft class that lacks anything close to a traditional blue-chip prospect, Willis' traits might be too alluring to bypass.

Where Malik Willis could end up being drafted

Willis is being coached at the Senior Bowl by the Detroit Lions, a team that could use a long-term solution at QB. Jared Goff is in place now, and the Lions have said good things about him this week. But Willis might be the perfect pick for a team that has a short-term starter who is eminently replaceable in time.

If Wednesday's practice reps were any indication, they like Willis. He handled nearly all the reps in the final periods of team work.


“I think he throws a nice ball,” Lions head coach Dan Campbell said. “He’s pretty athletic. He’s built better. … He’s built right. He looks like he’s built to last.

“He handled our playbook pretty [well]. We had a couple of run checks thrown in there. Defensively, we [gave him] a couple of pressure looks that I thought he handled well. [He's done] a good job.”

After Willis operated two successful two-minute drills to cap practice, Campbell made sure to give Willis an approving pat on the shoulder.

Willis might have entered the week as something of a wild-card prospect. The way things are trending, he might be headed for the NFL scouting combine roundly mocked as a first-round selection. Possibly even QB1 honors, even as Pitt's Kenny Pickett has been impressive for the National Team squad.


The Lions have two first-round draft picks. The Pittsburgh Steelers need a quarterback, and head coach Mike Tomlin was one of the first people to greet Willis coming off the field Tuesday. The Atlanta Falcons — Willis' hometown team and the one he grew up rooting for — must plan for life after Matt Ryan eventually. Along with several other QB-needy clubs.

Willis has some quarterback idols, including Ryan, after whom he patterns his game.

“Russell Wilson, his deep ball and his touch on his passes — that’s a really cool [part of his game],” he said. “I always looked up to Aaron Rodgers and his crazy arm angles. Just his mobility and keeping the play alive without having to like run for a lot of yards. Matt Ryan and his anticipation. I just try to focus on the little aspects that could help me in my game.”

What also has helped Willis' game has been competing at an impressive level at the Senior Bowl so far. Some team scouts worried that the structured practices might not be the ideal environment to showcase his off-schedule magic or provide much in the way of answers for his penchant for holding the ball too long.


Those haven't been pressing issues so far, even with all the challenges thrown his way in unfamiliar conditions. Willis is handling one challenge at a time and so far is impressing.

“This week I’m being asked to go out and execute the Lions’ playbook,” Willis said. “Last week, it was focusing on training and trying to get ready for [the Senior Bowl], and then I'll get ready for the combine.”

By the time he arrives in Indianapolis, Willis could be in the running to be the top quarterback selected.