But then the summer months rolled around, and Stidham’s name became synonymous with every improved projection of the Tigers in 2017. And while Willis isn’t expected to unseat either Stidham or returning starter Sean White in this fall’s quarterback battle, coach Gus Malzahn is still talking up his true freshman quarterback.
“We’ve got two guys that we’re positive about, and we’ve got Malik Willis,” Malzahn said last week. “I really think he’s a young guy who has a chance to be good, too.”
At SEC Media Days last Thursday, Malzahn mentioned Willis whenever he was asked about Auburn’s quarterback situation.
“I’ll throw in Malik one more time,” he said. “I think everybody saw on A-Day, the guy’s got something to him.”
Malzahn’s insistence on mentioning Willis at SEC Media Days even spread to his players in Hoover.
“I mean, Sean White, Jarrett Stidham, even Malik Willis, whoever want it the most and comes in in the fall, that’s who’s going to start,” senior offensive tackle Braden Smith said.
While Stidham has taken most of the spotlight this offseason, Willis carved out some of his own in spring camp. He was one of the biggest surprises of spring practices. He further showcased his quick instincts, feet and an impressive downfield arm at A-Day.
The early enrollee completed 11 of his 18 passes for 157 yards. He was the second-team quarterback for most of the first half, and he led the first-team offense after halftime.
It was a strong debut camp for a quarterback who has plenty of room to grow, according to first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey.
“I think he’s a really good athlete, a really good player,” Lindsey said in April. “Learning to play quarterback, really hasn’t played quarterback that long if you go back and look at him. I think he’s really played for a year and a half when he moved to a different school in Georgia.”
Willis’ breakout spring came at a crucial time for Auburn’s quarterbacks.
While he was impressing in practices as the No. 3 quarterback behind Stidham and White, Auburn moved John Franklin III to wide receiver. Tyler Queen transferred during camp, and Woody Barrett followed him later in the spring.
Malzahn wouldn’t commit to saying if Willis would play or redshirt in 2017. But he’s holding the door open for the new No. 14 from Georgia to take the field this fall.
“I’m not ready to say that yet, other than the fact that I was very impressed with him in the spring,” Malzahn said. “He’s a talented young man, and we’ll see how the season goes.”