NFL Draft

Scouting Spotlight: Liberty QB Malik Willis Vs Ole Miss

New to Steelers Depot, we will be highlighting several possible draft prospects the Pittsburgh Steelers may have interest in for the 2022 NFL Draft and their performance during the college football season.

From a scouting perspective, the matchup between the Liberty Flames and the Ole Miss Rebels has been one of the most anticipated games on the season thanks to two top QB prospects getting the chance to go toe-to-toe in Oxford, Mississippi. QB Malik Willis took college football by storm last season, showcasing the athletic ability as a dynamic dual threat with his legs as a runner as well as his ability to extend plays out of the pocket. Willis also has the arm talent to make impressive off platform throws while on the run, making him an enticing prospect for a league putting a priority on mobility and playmaking at the QB position with players like Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, and Josh Allen breaking out.

Willis got his opportunity to show a plethora of scouts and executives on-site as well as all those tuning in that he has what it takes to compete against an SEC defense and play to the level of a potential franchise NFL QB. Alas, everything that possibly could go wrong for Willis Saturday afternoon did, as the Liberty QB was running for his life for most of the contest. Willis finished the game completing 16-for-25 for 173 yards (64%) and zero TDs to three INTs, finishing with a QBR of 23.3. On the ground, Willis had 27 carries for 71 yards (2.6 YPC) and a TD while losing a fumble. Also, Willis was sacked NINE times on the afternoon, seven coming in the first half.

As mentioned above, Willis received no favors from his offensive line in this contest as was constantly pressured in the pocket and took a beating both as a passer as well as a rusher. Ole Miss EDGE #7 Sam Williams had a day getting to Willis as a pass rusher as you can see here on this third down pass attempt where Williams runs right past the LT and takes Willis down for the sack as Willis tries to shake off the tackler but can’t keep his feet as he gets thrown to the ground.


Willis took several big shots in this one, often resorting to tucking and running with the football due to the pressure immediately getting to him or the lack of separation created by his receivers downfield as the pass rush closed in. Still, no one should question Willis’ effort to try and make something out of nothing like on this broken play where he takes the snap and decides to tuck and run into the teeth of the defense rather than throw the WR at the top of the screen for some reason. He manages to make several defenders miss behind the LOS, gaining positive yardage as he gets swarmed by several Rebel defenders, but he drives his legs on contact to gain nearly three yards.


Willis’ mobility allowed him to escape the collapsing pocket on several occasions to avoid pressure in attempt to pick up positive yards on the ground with his legs. We just saw Willis run with power, pushing the pile with several defenders on top of him, but he also is fairly shifty in the open field, having the change of direction skills coupled with the speed and acceleration to be a dual threat. Watch this play on first down as Willis fakes to read option and looks to throw but has all his receivers blanketed in coverage. He tucks and runs, making one defender miss in space as he takes an angle to the sideline, getting to the sticks to pick up the first.


Here is another great example of Willis’ elusiveness as a runner, making the defensive back coming on the blitz miss with a quick juke to the left after faking the hand off, sending him flying to the ground as he runs to the second level, picking up the first down and gets down to avoid the big hit.


The play prior to Willis’ lone TD of the game, we see him turn down checking the ball down to his back on the swing route for some reason, choosing to run into the heat of the defense. He runs to the left, but then cuts back to the right, evading several defenders trying to tackle him, and steps out of a diving tackle attempt as he takes an angle to the pylon on the right sideline, eventually getting knocked down inside the five to put the offense in a goal-to-go situation. Willis probably should have taken the check down option to the back on this play, but he still manages to avoid pressure and set up the offense in scoring position the next play.


The very next play, Willis runs the option to the left, keeping the ball and cuts up field where he sneaks through the gap created by the LG and LT for the walk-in score.


While Willis was only credited with 71 yards rushing, it should be noted that college QBs have yardage lost on sacks subtracted from their total rushing total. CBS Sports tracked Willis total rushing numbers prior to yardage lost via sacks to 118 yards on the ground, meaning he lost 47 yards on the nine sacks he took on the afternoon. Watching the tape, you can see Willis racked up a fair number of yards with his legs, utilizing his speed, strength, and quickness. Take, for example, this read option where he keeps it and takes off, getting a couple yards from the line-to-gain before getting met by a host of defenders. He trucks one defender and stiff arms another, ripping off an impressive run.


While Willis was fairly successful as a runner Saturday afternoon, there is no denying that he took his lumps as a passer in this one.  Part of it can be put on the offensive line allowing pressure into the backfield before he has time to throw. For example, on the first interception by Willis on the day, we see the defense blow past the protection with a dialed-up blitz up the middle, forcing Willis to throw falling back to a receiver diving for the ball, but the defensive back rips the ball out and secures possession of the ball, resulting in the pick.


The next INT Willis throws falls more on his shoulders than on poor pass protection. Willis takes the snap and initially looks at the WR screen to his right, but then turns his eyes downfield to the receiver running up the right sideline. He targets his receiver attempting to place the ball in-between the two defenders in zone coverage, but the safety reads Willis’ eyes and jumps the route, picking off the pass. Willis fails to step into his throw here while also failing to recognize the defenders converging on the ball. Willis tries to rely too much on his arm here rather than having awareness to either throw earlier in the hole or check it down out of harm’s way.


Willis’ third and final INT of the game comes on this final drive in the fourth quarter. He takes the snap near the red zone on first down and rolls out to his right, scanning down the field. His receivers can’t get separation as the pressure closes in, but instead of throwing the ball away after he leaves the tackle box, Willis commits the deadly sin of throwing off his back foot across his body while on the run to the end zone, sailing the ball over his intended receiver’s head with three defenders in the area with one picking off the pass in the back of the end zone.

Willis needs to have better awareness to leave another down, but foolishly throws this ball up for grabs on a desperation heave to the end zone, throwing from a platform that resembles more of a prayer than a completable pass while still having three downs to score.


While Willis made some poor decisions as a passer Saturday in Oxford, there were several instances where he did showcase his arm talent as a passer. One example comes on this paly where Willis initially looks to his running back running to the flat but sees the defender coming down to commit to the flats, allowing the receiver in the slot at the bottom of the screen to find the soft spot in coverage in the middle of the field. Willis fires the ball in-between the two defenders to the receiver who turns up field and picks up some nice YAC into Rebel territory.


On this pass off the RPO, Willis fakes the give to the back and rolls to his left, waiting for his slot receiver on the left side of the formation to break to the sideline. Willis sets his feet and fires the ball to his intended target on a dart, placing the ball toward the sideline for his receiver to make a play and keep the ball away from the defender coming to contest the pass. Willis displays good velocity on his pass to the sideline, having the arm strength to complete the deep out route to move the chains.


On this second-and-long pass play, we see Willis use his mobility outside of the pocket combined with his arm talent to pick up the first down while on the run. Notice how he escapes the pocket as the pressure starts to close in, running toward the sideline while keeping his eyes downfield to find a receiver breaking open from coverage. As he nears the sideline, he finds a pass catcher streaking across the field toward the sideline as well, throwing the ball on a line while on the move to his intended target who makes a nice grab past the line-to-gain for first down yardage.


As you can see, Malik Willis had several instances of quality QB play, but also moments where he makes mental mistakes forcing the ball where it shouldn’t go or refuse to take the check down option and opt to run the ball. This play shows both mistakes by Willis, as he takes the snap and looks down his receiver running out to the right sideline with a blocker in front of him but decides the throw the ball on the screen play to the back out of the backfield. Willis again throws from a poor platform, falling back and jumping into the air, sailing the ball well over the intended receiver’s head right into the hands of the linebacker who luckily drops the ball.


This game obviously goes down of the worst performance of Malik Willis’ career from a statistical standpoint, but his performance does need context. Yes, he was running for his life behind his overmatched offensive line and had receivers struggle to separate downfield and drop some well-placed passes in tight coverage. However, it was concerning to see Willis regularly turn down his check down option to put his body on the line, running headfirst into the teeth of the defense. His decision making and situational awareness need to improve if he hopes to make the jump to the NFL, learning to read coverages and know when to cut it lose or when to live another down rather than throwing the ball into harm’s way.

Many scouts and fans alike have often compared Willis to Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson as a dynamic dual threat that can create on the ground as a runner while also having the zip on his passes to beat defenses through the air. While his running style and tendencies as a passer can resemble Jackson at times, I find Willis to be more of a blend of Jackson and Jalen Hurts as Willis isn’t as elusive or explosive as a runner as Jackson but runs with a fair amount of power like Hurts does. His inconsistencies as a passer also remind me of Hurts, who is capable of attacking downfield, but doesn’t really excel at throwing with timing and anticipation.

Some may write this game off for Willis as game where his team was overmatched, but his own mistakes as the captain of the ship didn’t help his team to pull off an upset in a game they were still in until the end. While the league values athleticism and mobility at a premium at the QB position, Willis is not as clean of a prospect Jackson was coming out of Louisville who went with the last pick in the first round back in 2018. Personally, I see Willis more as a developmental Day Two option, like what Hurts was that can come in and learn as he tries to adjust to the speed of the NFL game before being thrown into the fire.

The talent is evident with Willis, but the issues are just as glaring and need to be addressed if he is to be a successful starting QB in the NFL. Whatever team that drafts Willis will likely have to change their offensive system completely to match his strengths while covering up his deficiencies like Baltimore did with Jackson. Given how much HC Mike Tomlin has talked about mobility, Willis could be an option, but his small-school status and lack of production against top-flight competition do work against him to be the eventual successor in Pittsburgh.

What are your thoughts on Malik Willis’ performance against Ole Miss? Do you think he severely hurt his draft stock after this game, or do you think most of the blame needs to go to the team around him? Do you think that he can be a successful starting NFL QB and could be in-line to be the heir to Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh after the season? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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