New summer series for Steelers Depot highlighting a handful of 2022 NFL Draft hopefuls and options for the Pittsburgh Steelers we could be talked a lot more about nine months from now.
Malik Willis / QB / Liberty – 6’1, 215lb
-Has good open-field speed and explosiveness, being a threat to tuck and run
-Long speed is good, but not elite while initial burst is strong
-Has a stocky build that can power through arm tackles as a runner
-A natural fit for the zone run/RPO system that can keep it and make defenses pay for not committing defenders to him
-Has the feet and athleticism to evade pressure in the pocket and extend the play
-Generates good velocity on his throws
-Has the arm strength to hit the throws off-platform while on the run
-Has noticeable accuracy issues when it comes to ball placement on his intended receiver
– Ball security as a runner and thrower needs to be improved to avoid unnecessary giveaways
-Trusts his arm strength a little too much, trying to hum it into coverage leading to picks
-Needs to progress through his reads better and play with better anticipation when throwing to a receiver coming out of his route
-Will drop his elbow on some deep passes, causing him to air the ball over the intended receiver
-Redshirt Junior prospect from Atlanta, GA
Played his sophomore and junior seasons at Westlake High School in Atlanta
– Before transferring to Roswell High his senior season, Honor roll student
– Also recognized as a quality baseball player in high school
– His uncle, James Anderson, played for 11 seasons in the NFL and was a third-round draft pick in 2006 as a linebacker for the Panthers
-Attempted just 14 passes during his Tigers career from 2017-2018, completing 11-of-14 passing attempts for 69 yards and a touchdown as a backup adding in 28 rushes for 309 yards and two touchdowns
-Transferred to Liberty from Auburn
-Sat out the 2019 season due to NCAA transfer rules and redshirted
-Played and started in ten games in 2020, completing 170 of 265 (64.2%) for 2,260 yards, 20 TDs and six INTs while adding in 141 carries for 944 yards (6.7 average), and 14 TDs
-Completed his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies in May 2021
Last season, the liberty Flames were one of the lesser-known college football teams to grab the national spotlight, running toward a 10-1 record under HC Hugh Freeze. A big reason for the team’s success can be attributed to QB Malik Willis, an Auburn transfer that took college football by storm in 2020. Willis had moments where he was able to showcase his dynamic running ability as a scrambling QB during his first two seasons with the Tigers, but never earned a starting role with the team, prompting him to transfer to Liberty for a chance to be a starting QB. After sitting out the 2019 season due to transfer rules, Willis showed out in a big way for the Flames, impressing the nation as a passer as well as with his legs on the ground.
For the QB position, Willis is a great athlete who is a perfect fit for a read option/RPO-heavy option offense. He is a legit threat to tuck the ball and run if he keeps it, having the initial burst and speed to be a problem to contain as a runner. Check out this play against Southern Miss where Willis drops back to pass after faking the read option, evading multiple defenders in the backfield as he tucks the ball and sees open grass in front of him, bursting forward past several defenders as he picks up the first down on the ground with his legs, showing good power at the end of his run taking two defenders to bring him down.
He is elusive in the pocket and can sidestep pressure with ease, making defenders miss with impressive footwork and lateral change of direction skills as he finds space to accelerate forward. On this run against Florida International, we see Willis demonstrate his burst and contact balance as he gets pressure right up the middle which flushes him out to the right, but he has the speed to get the corner by the sideline and turn upfield. He then is able to stay upright from the diving tackle attempt by the defensive lineman in pursuit, spinning and staying on his feet as he runs up the sideline until he is finally caught from behind inside the red zone by the defensive back for the long run.
He is a smooth runner of the football when he wants to keep it himself, but he also utilizes his mobility well as a passer. He can evade pressure as the pocket breaks down and get to the outside to extend the play, having the athleticism and arm strength to throw well on the run to his intended target. On this play against Syracuse, we see Willis get flushed from the pocket to the left, finding his man in the flat and does a good job squaring up his shoulders while on the run, creating enough torque on his throw to get the ball to his receiver with two defenders in his face.
We see a similar play here with Willis stepping up in the pocket with pressure coming off the edge, having room to run but notices the defender coming up to him and sees his receiver cutting across the middle of the field, hitting the sidearm throw off-platform on the run around the defender right in front of him to his receiver in a tight window as he gets sandwiched in-between two defenders in coverage for the clutch reception.
Willis’s ability to throw on the run without his feet set underneath is a testament to his arm strength and his mobility as a QB prospect. Here against the Hokies, we see Willis have all the green grass to take off but still keeps his eyes downfield, seeing his receiver streak across the middle of the field in the end zone where Willis delivers a dart of a pass on a line while running forward to his man for the score.
If you want to see Willis’s arm strength and athleticism encapsulated in one play, this throw against Virginia Tech is the one for you. He takes the snap and immediately rolls out to the right, spinning out of a wimpy tackle attempt in the backfield and then unloads the ball while on the run to the sideline, uncorking it 45 yards with his feet not set underneath him to his receiver who catches the ball along the sideline inside the five-yard line to set up first-and-goal.
When he actually has his feet set underneath him and has room to step up to throw, Willis has the throw power to sling that thing over half of the football field quite easily. Here he hits his drop back the steps up to throw to his receiver streaking down the sideline in single coverage, launching it from his own 33-yard line to the opposing 18-yard line, putting it up in the air for his receiver to go up and get it against the defender for the big chunk gain on the play.
Willis has absolute confidence in his arm as a passer, whether it be in his arm strength to drop it in the bucket 50+ yards to his target or fitting into a tight window on the run to his man. While it’s good he is willing to take risks because he trusts his receivers to come up with the catch in contested catch situations, Willis would be wise to be more risk-adverse in general and choose to live to fight another down rather than trying to force the ball where it shouldn’t go.
His faith in his arm can fail him at times as a passer, attempting to make passes he never should. Take, for example, this play at the end of the game against NC State where Willis has his RB leaking out of the backfield over the middle of the field on 3rd-and-8, but he decides to throw the ball across his body with a defender looping around the edge into his face, giving the CB enough time to undercut the route to the sideline to intercept the pass on the comeback route. Notice how Liberty is up in a tightly contested game, but Willis puts the ball in harm’s way rather than taking the easy check down the play provided.
Here’s another play against the Hokies where Willis is sloppy with his mechanics as a passer, taking the shotgun snap and electing to step-and-throw rather than step up in the pocket, lofting the ball up in the air and underthrowing his receiver on the left sideline, making it easy for the corner to knock down the pass. Should Willis instead step up and drive the football down the field, he has a better chance of placing the ball over the defender.
Here’s another erred throw in the same game where Willis drops his elbow upon release of the football, subsequently sailing the ball well over his intended receiver’s head in the end zone for the missed scoring opportunity.
Another big problem that constantly pops up in Willis’ tape is his overall ball security. In the Virginia Tech game, there were too many times where he would drop the snap in his hands and try to make something happen afterwards rather than handle the snap properly to execute the play.
Along with ball security issues, Willis seemingly doesn’t have much pocket presence when it comes to being a passer, not having the awareness to understand when pressure is coming to tuck and run or throw the ball away if the defender isn’t coming directly in line of sight. Below are several instances against the Golden Eagles and Hokies where Willis doesn’t sense pressure and coughs up the football to the defense. As a starting QB in the NFL, you have to be able to sense when pressure is coming and get rid of the ball or at least hold onto the football when hit, and that is something Willis cannot do at this moment in time with plays like these littering his film.
Overall, the athleticism, arm strength, and ability to create out of structure are enticing traits that offenses want to have in this era’s spread systems. Willis has these traits in spades, and his highlights are quite impressive. However, the intangibles that come with the quarterback position in terms of decision making, pocket presence, consistent accuracy down the field, and ability to read defenses while going through route progressions just aren’t there at this time to be considered a reliable starting option making the jump from a small-school FBS team to facing NFL defenses on a weekly basis.
Sure, his legs and improvisation skills will help keep plays alive that traditional pocket passers can’t, but his lack of protecting the football and being risk adverse could lead to ample turnovers at the next level unless the mental aspect of his catches up to the physical.
As far as player comparisons go, Willis is unique because of his arm strength and mobility as a runner and passer outside of the pocket. Many have pointed to Eagles QB Jalen Hurts as a sensible comp, and while Hurts does have comparable speed, Hurts is stouter and is less turnover-happy, making more sound decisions than Willis. When it comes to strictly play style as an elusive runner, a player that can sling it off-platform with good arm strength but struggles with the mental aspect of the game from the QB position, I personally see Willis as a poor-man’s version of Lamar Jackson coming out of Louisville.
Obviously, Jackson was far more dynamic as a runner possessing better long speed, but the two have a similar running style. They also have similar throwing mechanics, making the sidearm, off-platform throws while on the run as zone read/RPO threats. Also, Willis doesn’t have Hurts’ awareness and anticipation in the pocket and can be more oblivious to pressure which is also something Jackson tends to struggle with.
Now Willis has a full season to improve and gain more playing experience to clean up some of these issues, as this was his first real starting experience in college football. He would be best suited for a run-heavy system like Baltimore that utilizes QB-designed runs and zone read/option work in the running game that requires their passers to work out in space. However, I would suggest that Willis needs more time to develop the mental aspect of the game and become more of a consistent passer while avoiding taking so many risks.
I would like to see him sit for initially when coming into the league to have him adjust to the speed of the game and learn from established veterans and a coaching staff that doesn’t put too much on his plate too early. The talent is undeniable with Willis, but the bust potential is arguably just as high as the boom heading into the 2021 season.
Projection: Day Two
Games Watched: at Virginia Tech (2020), vs Southern Mississippi (2020), at Syracuse (2020)