AUBURN, Ala. — Some Auburn football players haven’t had enough time to step into the spotlight through the Tigers first three spring practices, but Malik Willis hasn’t had a choice.
With quarterback Jarrett Stidham “limited” as he recovers from his offseason shoulder surgery, Willis has taken over as the leader of the first-team offense. So far, the sophomore has shown he’s more than equipped for that responsibility.
“I think Malik has taken a great step in the right direction. You can tell he’s maturing, taking advantage of the opportunity actually controlling the one unit,” Auburn linebacker Deshaun Davis said. “He actually looks like an SEC quarterback when he is out there. He has total control of that group. Everyone is listening to him. He’s made some great throws. There’s still room to get better, but that’s for everybody, though. You can still see the young flash. He’s have a great spring so far.”
With September still many months away, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn isn’t willing to say whether Willis has secured the backup job. He is, however, willing to express his faith in the underclassman.
At times it appeared that Willis could have entered games earlier on during garbage time last season. Malzahn even said that Auburn would have felt good about running most of its offense with the newcomer in the game.
When he did get chances, the Atlanta native made the most of them. In seven games last season, Willis rushed for 221 yards and a touchdown and completed 6 passes for 45 yards. He’ll need to continue capitalizing like that this spring and summer.
“Yeah, you know, he got some experience and that is the positive,” Malzahn said. “So we’ve kind of, we’ve kind of moved on from last year, just to be honest with you. We do like the fact that he’s getting the reps with the ones and I think that’ll go a long way with next year.”
Conversations about Willis with Malzahn or other Auburn players typically start and end with progress. Those around Willis saw him grow during his first season on The Plains. Now, there’s hope he’ll take another step toward eventually becoming a starter and, yes, maybe showing some of those early Nick Marshall comparisons, too.
In three practices, Willis already has given the impression he’s way more comfortable being “the guy.” He’s acclimated, and starting to really make himself at home.
“He’s done a good job so far with his approach, just the attention to detail,” Malzahn said. “Things are becoming natural for him. You can tell he’s not having to think about a whole lot of stuff. He’s starting to just play football. I think that’s really important.”
Even with all of his talent and growth, Willis isn’t in an easy position. Auburn is returning several upperclassmen offensively. They know the drill.
“It’s hard being as young as he is and trying to command a group of guys,” wide receiver Darius Slayton said. “But I think, slowly but surely, he’s starting to get the hang of it. I’m sure as time goes on, he’ll get better and better.”
Fortunately Willis has the support of some very outspoken seniors, both on the field and off. They can see Willis becoming more mature and have no plans of letting him take his foot off the gas.
“I texted him the other night and said, ‘you’re the guy right now, because obviously Jarrett’s not in there. Just lead us. Don’t be afraid to lead,” H-back Chandler Cox said. “He’s been awesome. He’s growing up the way he needs to.”
Auburn football has confidence in Willis, from the coaching staff on down. The coming weeks will provide an opportunity for him to continue moving forward. Willis has the green light. Now he just needs to go.
“I think the coaches have all the confidence in him. It’s just about what he does from now on,” offensive guard Mike Horton said. “I think they have confidence in Malik and it’s all about what he does from here on out.”