Malik Willis undoubtedly made the most of his first season with the Auburn Tigers.
For starters, the Atlanta native enrolled early, which excited his high school coach John Ford. It wasn’t long before Willis was eliciting Nick Marshall comparisons, more so based on his strong spring campaign rather than his matching No. 14 jersey.
“To be able to get there early and learn what it’s all about, learn the scheme and the system and things along those lines. I know, getting used to Coach [Chip] Lindsey and Coach [Gus] Malzahn, and how all that stuff goes. That was good for him, obviously.”
As the season unfolded, Willis claimed the backup job after the dismissal of Sean White. He eventually appeared in seven games, rushing for 221 yards and completing 6 of 7 passes (45 yards). His most important lessons learned, however, came away from the field.
“I think just how important it is to be the quarterback all the time,” Ford said. “To always be on, to always be a tone-setter and set the example. That’s to earn the respect of those guys that are four or five years older than you. I think he did that this year and I think he’ll continue to work at that.”
The speed of the college game never seemed to trip up Willis. When his opportunities came, he provided a spark and impressed with his athleticism. His poise, though, was perhaps most striking. It didn’t surprise those most familiar with Willis and his “magnetic personality.”
“He did everything I thought he’d do. He’s the kind of kid that the moment’s not too big for him,” Ford said. “He’s a calm, but confident kid on the field and I knew that would translate well to the next level.”
Sean McAvoy, Willis’ private quarterback coach, agreed completely.
“To me it wasn’t as surprising because I knew, one, he kind of has that mentality anyway, of feeling pretty confident and comfortable in what he’s able to do,” McAvoy said. “I think from the beginning when he first got to Auburn he just really felt good about Coach Malzahn, Coach Lindsey and just really understanding the offense, how he fit in. You could just see that he felt that was what he was going to do. If he got on the field, he didn’t doubt that he was going to be successful.”
McAvoy and Ford occasionally checked in with Willis throughout his first season at Auburn and of course, watched him on the weekends. When the coaches did check in with Willis, he was focused on Lindsey’s feedback and improving.
“Coach Lindsey, from the beginning was really up front from the beginning with we just need to train you or teach you how to be the starting quarterback,” McAvoy said. “From the beginning, going into spring ball he kind of had that message to Malik, ‘We want you just preparing like you’re the starting quarterback.'”
Studying alongside starter Jarrett Stidham served Willis well, too. Concentrating in the film room, breaking down practice film and other forms of preparation were critical for Willis in ’17.
Now Willis will put all he learned in the Tigers’ run to the SEC Championship Game into a full offseason. That, McAvoy says, “should be exciting.”
Progress will remain Willis’ first priority, be it with throwing the ball, arm acceleration or knowledge of the offense. Regardless, those around him are expecting a great spring and strong sophomore season.
“The quarterback position is in good hands, no doubt,” Ford said.