AUBURN, Ala. — Jarrett Stidham wasn’t the only quarterback who delivered on the hype of the last few weeks during Auburn football’s spring game Saturday.
True freshman Malik Willis entered the annual A-Day game as the spring’s most talked-about offensive player outside of Stidham. Inside Jordan-Hare Stadium, he looked like the quarterback that players and coaches have raved about all camp — a dynamic dual-threat who doesn’t look like a typical early enrollee.
“For a guy that should still be in high school, he’s really doing some things that have impressed (Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey),” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He handled the offense well. He took a sack or two today, but that’s just from being young. Overall, a solid spring. We knew when we recruited him he was talented, but it’s a matter of trying to pick up the offense quickly.”
Willis completed 11 of his 18 pass attempts for 157 yards. While he started the game with the second-team offense, Willis took over first-team duties in the second half after Stidham checked out for the day.
Willis completed five different passes of 15-plus yards, including a 37-yard connection with sophomore receiver Nate Craig-Myers in the second half.
“I just see him having a great career here,” Craig-Myers said. “He’s a guy who is going to make plays with his feet and also his arm. He did a pretty good job today. He had a pretty good spring.”
The Georgia native didn’t get any real chances to showcase his running ability, but he showed flashes of that mobility. On the first drive of the game, Willis side-stepped a potential sack on third-and-8 and delivered a tight 28-yard pass over the middle to Ryan Davis.
“Malik is a phenomenal athlete,” junior running back Kerryon Johnson said. “It’s creepy because he really does remind everyone of Nick Marshall. Same number, same running style. He’s such a smooth quarterback and the thing with Malik is … he just has supreme confidence in himself.”
Returning starter Sean White sat out for the spring game as part of his recovery from a forearm injury. That meant Willis had the perfect opportunity to establish himself as the top young quarterback on the roster behind Stidham.
White said Auburn fans saw what he’s seen all spring out of Willis, a willing learner with a high ceiling.
“He’s loose,” White said. “I think y’all saw it today, he didn’t appear nervous or anything like that. He’s just ready to go and you know, he comes, he’s ready to learn. It’s not like he has a big head on his shoulders from high school or nothing. I mean, I really love Malik, and I think he’s got a lot of talent.”
While Stidham is the expected starting quarterback for the fall — with White potentially serving as a highly experienced backup — Willis entered 2017 as a likely redshirt candidate.
However, what Willis showed in three scrimmages might earn him some early playing time. He has a full summer to grow before the quarterback competition restarts in earnest this fall.
“Even if he makes a bad read or he might not know, he’s going to make a play,” Johnson said. “With Malik, all he has to do is keep learning, keep maturing and he’ll be more than fine.”