ROSWELL, Ga. — On Dec. 10, his Roswell team down 20-13 with a minute to go, Malik Willis entered his element. The bright lights of the Georgia Dome shone down on Roswell’s quarterback as the Hornets faced a touchdown deficit, 70 yards of green space and Grayson’s super squad comprised of several future SEC defenders.
That’s when Willis became the alpha in a dome filled with alphas.
“He made a comment to me once that stuck with me: ‘Dad, is there something wrong with me liking pressure?'” Mark Willis said of his son.
A who’s who of high school All-Americans congregated in the Grayson-Roswell matchup for one of the most star-studded Georgia state championship games of all-time. Between the two schools, there were double-digit future Power 5 standouts on display for the title game. At the time committed to Virginia Tech, Willis emerged from the pack of superstars with less than a minute to go in the final game of his high school career.
Against a defense that included a Georgia safety commit, an Ole Miss linebacker commit, a South Carolina defensive back commit, among others — in other words, the future of the SEC — Willis took control of the Roswell offense much like he had during his 12-touchdown, 1-interception playoff performance in Georgia’s 7A classification. Roswell quickly went 7 plays and 70 yards downfield, capped off by a 20-yard strike from Willis to Kentrell Barber as time expired to force overtime.
— Tony Ballard (@tballardqbcoach) December 11, 2016
That’s Malik. The 3-star prospect who barely attended camps. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound athlete who maybe or maybe wasn’t wanted as a quarterback by schools. That’s him taking over when his team needed a leader, against a defense loaded with next-level talent.
“Just so calm, collected. Nothing you can teach. Completely un-rattled,” then-Roswell coach John Ford said. “The moment was never too big for him.”
Overtime ended with an unfavorable result for Willis & Co. Grayson made its field goal. Roswell missed its attempt. For the second time in his QB career, Willis lost. But that wasn’t the takeaway most grabbed from that night.
It was that Willis — 21-2 in his season-and-a-half as a varsity quarterback — deserved to be in the same conversation with the likes of Jake Fromm, Davis Mills, Trevor Lawrence and the other elite signal-callers from Georgia. Willis finished his high school career with 3,318 passing yards, 41 passing touchdowns, 1,725 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns against the toughest competition in the state.
Coaches who might’ve erred on the side of caution before had no choice but to take notice.
“He’s not done learning. That’s something Coach (Gus) Malzahn and Coach (Rhett) Lashlee was also attracted to — his upside,” Mark Willis said. “Malzahn was like, ‘If he was playing the position at this high of a level his full sophomore and junior year, he’d be a top guy in the country. I told him I’m glad it happened the way it did. That’s where his character comes from. That’s where his work ethic comes from.”
‘Seemed like too much of a coincidence for us’
Willis knew three things for certain: He wanted to play Power 5 football. He wanted to do it as a quarterback. And he wanted to enroll early to study engineering.
When he committed to Virginia Tech in June, his only other Power 5 option was Georgia Tech. Willis had a strong relationship with the Yellow Jackets’ staff, but preferred a spread offense over Paul Johnson’s system. The Hokies and head coach Justin Fuente offered a spread-style operation that matched well with what Willis would soon run at Roswell.
It made his two-sided choice, at the time, obvious.
“I always had nothing but love for Coach Fuente and the Virginia Tech family,” Willis said just before enrolling last Sunday.
Virginia Tech was the first Power 5 school to offer Willis. Georgia Tech joined the picture soon after. The Hokies — for a host of reasons — were the best fit to Willis when he committed before his senior season.
Willis committed as an athlete with no promise of the quarterback role. Throughout his senior season, Virginia Tech offensive line coach Vance Vice adamantly began vouching for Willis as a quarterback to Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen. There still didn’t seem to be a confident reassurance that this was a quarterback opportunity only.
He played all over the field on his 7-on-7 team. In the first half of his junior year at Westlake, Willis played wide receiver.
In one of his few recruiting camp appearances, Willis traveled — coincidentally — to Auburn for a DB camp with Wesley McGriff who coached Mark Willis’ brother at Kentucky State. He projected as a top-35 athlete in the country (likely to rise), so many programs recruited him as such. But he wanted to play quarterback, which forced a few programs to wait.
There was no more hesitation after the state championship game — that final drive.
Malzahn and Lashlee made a group phone call shortly after the championship performance. They watched the Colquitt County game early in the season. They reviewed the North Cobb semifinal game against Auburn linebacker commit Chandler Wooten. And, of course, they witnessed the title game against Grayson.
The Auburn offensive staffers were mesmerized by Willis’ progression as a quarterback, and they didn’t wait to tell him.
“Over the phone, it was just excitement in their voices,” Willis said. “They said they liked my skill set, my ability to throw and run. They said I fit the offense perfectly. They’ve got Sean (White), John (Franklin), Jarrett (Stidham), all those people. But they said they like my fit and skill set.”
An offer didn’t come right away. Auburn still was in the Stidham hunt. The Tigers had long-shot hopes for Lowell Narcisse, who ultimately re-committed to LSU. In the meantime, other schools contacted Willis — Georgia, Notre Dame, South Carolina and more.
Most programs measured Willis’ interest at defensive back versus quarterback, or his willingness to push back to a summer enrollee rather than his January plan at Virginia Tech. Willis wanted to be a quarterback, and he wanted to enroll early.
By the end of December, only Auburn could unequivocally match Virginia Tech’s offer and it came with greater quarterback reassurances.
“Here it is just a few months after going to a camp there and not getting an offer, you get the offer at the position you really wanted to play,” Mark Willis said. “That just seemed like too much of a coincidence for us … And it just so happened that Auburn is a top engineering school, as well. Here again, it just seemed like it fit him perfect.”
The makings of a quarterback
Five games into Willis’ junior season, Westlake was 3-2 and playing from behind for the region crown. Westlake needed something to change the course of the 2015 football season. The team needed a shot in the arm.
Enter Malik Willis, the quarterback.
Willis grew up in a quarterback capacity, but his innate athleticism in late middle school and early high school placed him in other skill positions. In high school, he played wide receiver and defensive back, had a role in the return game and took handoffs. Despite playing alongside Clemson commit A.J. Terrell and Georgia commit Jaden Hunter, Willis often was the best athlete on the field. His coach wanted the ball in his hands more.
“There was a point in the season where it looked like they weren’t going to win the region. The head coach made the switch and told him, ‘Go take the region back.’ That’s literally what he did,” Mark Willis said. “Now Malik would never say it like that. But he really went and took the region back.”
Two things there are inarguably certain.
Willis took back the region. Westlake rattled off seven wins in a row. The only loss came in the state quarterfinals against Willis’ arch-nemesis Grayson, 35-28. That run included a clean sheet against region foes as Westlake claimed the Region 2-7A crown.
What else is true, his father points out, is that Willis wouldn’t tell this story. That’s left for others to do. In a roundabout way, that explains the quarterback Willis has become.
“I would say Malik is probably the most humble quarterback I’ve worked with regardless of talent level,” Willis’ private QB coach Sean McEvoy said. “There were times where he acted as if he was a 7th grader approaching it like he was learning to throw for the first time. Not his talent ability, just the way he went at trying to get better. Anything that was going to help him get to where he wanted to be. It still strikes me to this day.”
McEvoy met Willis in between his junior and senior year as Willis underwent a major life change.
After growing up in Atlanta as members of the Westlake community, the Willis family moved to Roswell in a much-greater-than-football life decision. Mark Willis wanted a change of scenery for Willis, his 11th-grade sister and 8th-grade brother. He calls it one of the best decisions he’s made as a parent.
It allowed Willis to join the Roswell Hornets football team, one of the state’s most proven powers. Willis joined a squad with the likes of Alabama commit Xavier McKinney, Louisville commit Corey Reed and Clemson commit LeAnthony Williams. But Roswell coach John Ford needed a quarterback. He believed Willis was the man for the job.
John Ford put Willis in touch with McEvoy who coaches quarterbacks across the southeast. Prior to his private work with McEvoy, Willis participated in two highly-competitive programs during the offseason. He worked, as he did every offseason, with the i-DareU Academy and CEO Glenn Ford who played college ball at Georgia and is known in some circles as the “DB guru.” Willis also starred as a multi-purpose athlete on the Cam Newton 7-on-7 football team that traveled to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and California for tournaments.
Ford noticed a distinct change from Willis pre-McEvoy and post-McEvoy.
“We train from January to July. You’re talking about 26 weeks he’s with some of the top guys in the country. It’s an easy transformation when you go out there on the field. Iron sharpens iron. I think that’s a good thing for kids to get out there with kids that are like-minded,” Glenn Ford said. “With the work he did lately with Sean McEvoy. It took him from being a great athlete to now he can play quarterback at a high level.”
In his first session with McEvoy — which coincided with the Roswell season-opener — McEvoy realized he had a star in the making.
McEvoy knew nothing about Willis prior to their meeting, other than he looked to be the heir apparent to the Roswell QB role. He quickly learned that Willis, a baseball player growing up, had a big, live arm and could make every throw in the book. He just needed fine-tuning.
“He was all in in the first 10 minutes. As we started to tweak some things, it was a total buy in,” McEvoy said. “That’s why I had experiences with similar-type athletes who think they kinda know it all already. The difference with Malik was he immediately bought in. He said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s get rolling.'”
Willis was consistent in the early stages of the 2016 season.
Weeks 1 through 4: Win, win, win and win, including a 254-yard, 3-touchdown showing in Week 4. From there, Willis became a different player. McEvoy and Willis transitioned from a consistent throwing motion and read progressions to processing pre-snap information and using it to change plays. Willis picked up that as smoothly as he did throwing practices.
“That’s where it all clicked. That’s where you saw him take a real jump,” McEvoy said. “He could always throw the 65-yard fade ball down the sideline with the best of them.”
Roswell’s wins kept coming.
The Hornets marched through their 7A schedule and cruised into the playoffs 10-0. Willis went for 259 yards and 4 touchdowns in the first round. In the second round win, he threw a nearly perfect second half and finished with 292 yards and 2 touchdowns despite a rare interception-filled performance. Then he upended Wooten and North Cobb to place Roswell in the semifinals.
Against Westlake, his old home.
It isn’t easy for college football players, even professionals, to play in their old stomping grounds — much less return and shine. Willis was ice cold. In the week of preparation, John Ford showed caution toward Willis’ situation early in the week. His QB’s response: What situation? This was business. Roswell was on its way to a potentially historic season. Emotions could take a backseat.
Willis sliced the Westlake secondary that features multiple Power 5 defensive backs — a group that used to include Willis. He went for 225 yards and 2 touchdowns, including a 46-yard scoring strike.
It was a big-time performance from a big-time player. All he did was what he always does: smile.
“That’s pressure,” Glenn Ford said. “When Malik played against them, he was doing a job. You could tell this kid was different. Just the way he goes about his business. This kid is different.”
The following week Willis — in front of a Power 5 coaching audience — put to rest any quarterback doubts with his 268-yard outing and last-second touchdown drive in the overtime state-title loss to Grayson. It bookended a senior season in which the up-and-coming quarterback solidified himself as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Class 7A offensive player of the year.
“He was an athlete playing quarterback when he got to Roswell. Because of the work he put in, he turned himself into a quarterback who just happens to be a phenomenal athlete,” John Ford said. “He can make all the throws you need, has all the requisite skill set to be as good as he wants to be at this game.”
The competition’s newest member
Four years ago, John Ford made multiple trips to Auburn to discuss the development of his playbook with Gus Malzahn and Tim Horton. That gives you a proper idea of the playbook Willis orchestrated during his senior season. By the end of the season, John Ford felt like Willis picked it up better than most quarterbacks who have used it.
That will make Willis’ transition to Auburn much simpler.
“It’s going to make it easier to lock into the Auburn offense. It’s just terminology really. They run a lot of the same plays. The inside zone. A lot of play-action. All that. I’ve just got to find the terminology and match it with my old terminology, and I’ll be straight,” Willis said. “I’m ready to just get into the playbook.”
Willis is well-aware of Auburn’s quarterback situation. Some might ask why he made his decision. Virginia Tech’s 2016 starter Jerod Evans is on his way to the NFL. That’s the gamer Willis is. He knows Sean White is a worthy incumbent. He expects Jarrett Stidham to live up to his frontrunner hype. He sees Woody Barrett, John Franklin III and Tyler Queen as legitimate contenders in the QB room.
Willis wants to make it that much more competitive.
“I’m just coming in and fight for a spot. Trying to start. I get to come in an extra semester. I can practice in the spring before the actual season starts, fall camp, all that stuff,” Willis said. “Of course I hope to be starting. Or at least playing. One or two on the depth chart. But I just hope to compete and get better and make myself better.”
He’s the biggest underdog of the group to land the starting job.
Stidham, White and Franklin all have the Power 5 experience. Barrett and Queen don’t have that, but they both are mobile with big-armed ability that should make them conversation starters this offseason. Willis is garnering comparisons to Cam Newton and Nick Marshall — logical associations for athletic Auburn quarterbacks. The only difference: Willis is much further along than both of those were as passers when they left high school.
For that reason, the people who know Willis’ skill set best believe he can be a Day 1 contender.
“If he ran a 5.2 40, I’d tell you he could play at an SEC school based on the way he can throw the football and the way he understands how to read defense,” McEvoy said. “So I certainly wouldn’t count Malik out. It would surprise everybody else in the country who still don’t know who Malik is, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit.”
John Ford took the head coach’s approach.
He admitted he hasn’t seen enough tape on Stidham or White or others to draw fair conclusions. But Ford has a thorough understanding of the newcomer to the battle, and he expects Malzahn and his new offensive coordinator will treasure the underrated, under-offered gem who — as fate had it — landed in Auburn’s lap.
“I know Malik is going to make a mark,” John Ford said. “I know Malik is going to represent himself and his family really well. I know those coaches are going to love working with him every day.”