LYNCHBURG, Va. — Coach Hugh Freeze and Liberty are facing a fourth-and-3 from Virginia Tech’s 38-yard line early in the second quarter, and two things are abundantly clear.
The Flames are going for it, and the ball is going to be in star quarterback Malik Willis’ hands.
Liberty, on this day last November, is ranked for the first time in program history — but still not really taken seriously — as 17-point underdogs at unranked Virginia Tech.
Willis looks across the line of scrimmage at the Hokies, the program that was one of the few Division I schools to originally offer him a scholarship, even if it would likely be at defensive back instead of his preferred quarterback position.
He takes the snap and is almost immediately met by defensive back Chamarri Conner. It should be a turnover on downs, the kind of defensive stop that could swing the game back in Virginia Tech’s favor.
But Willis spins off Conner, continues rolling to his right and throws a strike down the sideline to wide receiver Kevin Shaa, who gets a foot in bounds to set Liberty up at the 3-yard line.
“I just shook my head up in the box,” Liberty co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kent Austin said. “I’m like, ‘I can’t believe he just did that.'”
Two plays later, the Flames take a 14-3 lead and would eventually hold on for a wild 38-35 victory, arguably the biggest in school history.
In a season full of highlights — Willis completed 64.2% of his passes for 2,250 yards and 20 touchdowns with six interceptions, while rushing for 944 yards and 14 more scores — this is the play that would define Liberty’s present turnaround and Willis’ seemingly unlimited future potential.
“I’m not sure what other quarterback in college football, and it’s gotta be a small list in the NFL that can make that play,” said Sean McEvoy, one of Willis’ private QB coaches who also works with a plethora of the best collegiate and pro quarterbacks.
In his first season as a college starting quarterback, that throw made one thing readily apparent:
Malik Willis had arrived.
Willis’ high school career started at Atlanta’s Westlake High School, best known as the alma mater of Cam Newton, but he didn’t play quarterback full time until his senior year, when he transferred to Roswell. But no one was biting on him as a recruit the way he felt they should have been.
Eventually Willis committed to Virginia Tech in June 2016. Five months later, he would decommit and go with Auburn and then-coach Gus Malzahn.
Auburn wasn’t planning on taking a high school quarterback in that class, because it was the class after it brought Jarrett Stidham in from Baylor (and Stidham had to sit out a season). When starting quarterback Sean White got hurt at the end of 2016, the Tigers realized they needed to bring in a high school quarterback to develop.
“Obviously, we’ve had success with Nick Marshall, Cam Newton and those guys,” said current Miami offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who originally recruited Willis to Auburn. “And so Malik was a guy who played for John Ford up at Roswell. … So we reached out to John, started talking with Malik and realized even though he committed to Virginia Tech, he definitely had some interest in Auburn, staying close to home and playing at Auburn.
“For me, he just reminded us a lot of Nick. I mean, he was long, he was athletic, he could really run, throw the deep ball well.”
When Willis arrived at Auburn, he was buried down the depth chart, but he quickly worked his way up to being Stidham’s backup. But Willis wasn’t able to show what he was fully capable of because of limited snaps and limited options in those snaps.
“Even when they were up 30 points in the fourth quarter, it was very limited time,” said McEvoy. “… So even when he was in, he wasn’t allowed to do anything. He certainly wasn’t gonna be able to throw. So I think that was tough on him.”
Willis knew he needed to go after Auburn’s spring game in 2018, when he didn’t get reps against the first team.
“I was like, ‘Dang, like, no love?'” Willis said. “After the game, [Malzahn] said I did almost perfect. And then the next day, he was like, ‘Uh, yeah, we’re gonna have to slim down the competition.’ This and that, and then I just took that, I was like, ‘OK, I gotta leave.'”
Willis, who admires Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson for how he uses his athletic success as a platform for his religious beliefs, leaned on his faith in looking for his next destination. All he wanted was a chance.
“I don’t think there’s nothing in life that I prayed for, that I didn’t receive, in a way, shape or form,” Willis said. “He gonna give you what you need and he gonna give it to you on his time. There’s nothing you can do about it — you just got to stay faithful.
“I remember, like literally being like, ‘Please, like, can I just have an opportunity to go somewhere and show what I can do?’ And then I just asked, constantly, ‘Just let me glorify your name, however you want me to, let me use this platform.'”
Willis didn’t know much about Liberty prior to his official visit.
“I needed to be able to come somewhere to play,” he said. “I said somewhere that had a need. That was all. I didn’t really care about nothing else. It didn’t matter where I had to go.”
Willis checked his daily Bible verse app the day before his official visit to Liberty in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the app displayed 2 Corinthians 3:17.
Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty.
The next day, when Willis walked into Liberty’s facility, he saw the verse on the wall.
“I’m like, ‘Ain’t no way. Ain’t no way.’ I ain’t even tell nobody that,” Willis said. “I just kind of like kept it to myself. But I knew right then I was like, ‘Yep, this the place I’m supposed to go.'”
So on July 9, 2019, Willis committed to Liberty, but he had to sit out the year because of his transfer.
The relationship between Willis and Freeze has been mutually beneficial from the start. For Willis, Freeze’s QB-friendly offense allows him to show off all those elite skills. For Freeze, he’s got a quarterback who can take advantage of his offensive mind.
“You know, the numbers don’t lie,” Freeze said. “If you look at my whole career, whether it was at little ol’ Lambeth University, to Arkansas State, to Ole Miss to here, we’ve shattered offensive records at all of those schools. And we’ve done it with a variety of different quarterbacks.
“My first year here, I had Buckshot (Stephen Calvert), who couldn’t outrun me. And so, you know, I’ve got to eliminate this half of my playbook probably for him. And we did, and we still won.”
But before Willis could take the field, Liberty became engulfed in controversy following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the police murder of George Floyd.
Jerry Falwell Jr., then the university president, sent a racist tweet that showed one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. A day later, Asia Todd, a freshman on Liberty’s women’s basketball team, announced she was transferring “due to the racial insensitivities shown within the leadership and culture” at the school.
Tayvion “Tank” Land and Kei’Trel Clark, two cornerbacks on the Liberty football team, transferred out, with Land citing “racial insensitivity displayed by leadership” and Clark mentioning the “cultural [incompetence] within multiple levels of leadership.” Land later told Slate of an incident in which a professor allegedly said, “Don’t be scared. I’m not going to pull out my whip and hit you with it.”
Willis said he was good friends with Land but didn’t know the details of the incident. He added he wasn’t aware of Falwell and his political leanings prior to arriving at Liberty, that he personally felt comfortable at the university and that “nothing ever happened to me.”
Willis took classes on campus at Liberty during his 2019 redshirt year but has since only had to appear at Liberty’s football facility, even to do his classwork. He’s taking online courses for grad school, going for his MBA.
“Football brings people together from different backgrounds, different environments, different cultures, different religions, all types of stuff,” Willis said. “You just got to be open, you know, communicate with each other and try to understand one another. And that’s just what’s gonna bring y’all closer. You know, siblings and cousins and stuff, they fight, but they get right back together because they’s family. That’s how it should be.”
Willis knew three things he liked about Liberty: Hugh Freeze and his offense was there; it’s an institution that places importance on faith; and Freeze’s strength and conditioning staff from Mississippi was there.
“Those were the three things I needed to hear,” he said. “I don’t care about, ‘The school doesn’t have this and that because it’s a Christian school.’ For us it isn’t important. So what? This is what I came for.
“I came to work,” he said. “I came to work.”
Liberty’s football team is lifting on a Wednesday morning in mid-July, and Moneybagg Yo is dominating plays over the speakers booming through Liberty’s $20 million facility located behind the north end zone at Williams Stadium. “Run This Town” by Jay-Z and Rihanna briefly comes on but is skipped for more Moneybagg. The Flames are keeping a consistent vibe during the morning lift.
Willis goes up to Ralfs Rusins, a redshirt senior defensive tackle, and starts hyping him up, patting him on the back and shoulders, smiling, having a good time.
Rusins asks Willis, “You want to do dumbbell rows with me?” and proceeds to pull out a 150-pound dumbbell. Willis responds, “I’ll do ’em with you, but I can’t do 10 reps of that, brother. Not three sets.”
Willis, who has been loose and enjoying the lifting session, knocked out sets with a 120-pound dumbbell. If a stranger walked into the room, they likely couldn’t identify Willis as the quarterback because of his linebacker-esque build. And as teams found out last fall, Willis has the strongest arm on the field, and the most speed.
Despite showing off those skills every Saturday last fall, if you were to ask Willis what he did well in 2020, he couldn’t give you an answer. Ask about what he needs to work on, though, and he will reply with a detailed catalogue of the plays he didn’t make.
“I swear I remember every bad throw I made, like it’s ingrained in my memory,” he said.
But when Willis speaks of his 2020 season, he doesn’t get down on himself. He will tell you about his mistakes, and why he made them. But it fuels him as he prepares to go into his second year as a starter.
“I don’t feel like I had a great year last year,” Willis said. “I feel like I had a decent year for my first time playing, but I definitely can improve and just build this platform so I can keep glorifying God at the end of the day.
“Now that I’m in my second year in the system, I understand more about what Coach Kent [Austin] is talking to me about not just knowing coverage, but understanding what the fundamentals of coverage are, what did each player need to do in order to do their job on defense on the defensive side. Just understanding that makes it a lot easier. … I just feel like I didn’t have that last year. It was more like, I was out there. I knew coverage, I knew the plays, but now I just feel more comfortable. And more confident.”
Austin said, “Malik’s got an unbelievable work ethic. And he takes coaching. He’s truly a guy that wants to improve. And he doesn’t want to waste a day in that improvement trajectory. … He comes to work every day, mentally to understand schematically the game and defense, but also fundamentally and making sure that he stays consistent.”
Willis also tries to spread that same energy with the team in a leadership role.
“He does a really good job of holding other guys accountable,” Liberty co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Maurice Harris said. “He gets that if all of the guys around me are on their P’s and Q’s, so to speak, then we’re going to be very, very successful as a team and playing at a high level. So he has a really good, just overall mindset of what it takes not just for him to be successful, but for the team to be successful.”
Willis ultimately did offer one thing he liked about 2020. “Winning,” said Willis, who led the Flames to a 10-1 record, including a 37-34 victory over Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl. “I feel like that’s the only thing I liked about last year.”
Neither head coach nor quarterback will give you an expectation of what Liberty should do on the field this season. Freeze admits he expects big things out of Willis specifically, but the two are on the same page when it comes to everything else. It’s just about getting better every day.
But the rest of the football world can’t help but gush over Willis’ talent and the possibilities over how high he might be selected in the 2021 NFL draft. ESPN’s Todd McShay has Willis as his No. 7 overall prospect, while Mel Kiper Jr. has him at No. 15. (He is the No. 3 QB for both analysts, behind only Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler and North Carolina’s Sam Howell.)
His private quarterback coaches — Quincy Avery and McEvoy — are not just ready to prepare him for the NFL, but also the unfair criticism and scrutiny that often comes with being a Black quarterback and potential first-round pick. Avery and McEvoy trained both Trey Lance and Justin Fields, with Fields in particular having disingenuous narratives developing around him in the months and weeks leading up to the draft.
They already know what the analysts are going to say: that his offense isn’t pro style enough, or he’s not doing things in terms of reading a defense, or he won’t or can’t go through his progressions.
Avery said, “He’s doing all the things that every other college quarterback is doing. And he’s doing them with less talent around him. And he’s putting his guys in a great position to be successful. So saying that, I’m going to be not only frustrated, but I’ll know that it’s coming out and know that it’s false.
“All the things that they want you to be able to do in the NFL in 2021 are things that Malik does really well,” he added. “Pushes the ball down the field, can extend plays with his legs, could be a key cog in running quarterback design runs or quarterback RPOs (run-pass options). He can stretch the defense in so many different ways from how he can push the ball down the field or how effortless of a runner he is, like he’s going to create a ton of issues for teams in the way that he plays football, and I think that we both know like, that’s where the game is going.”
Freeze knows the NFL is trending that way. He has had multiple NFL teams reach out and schedule Zoom calls with him about the offense Liberty is running and what his favorite RPOs are. When it comes to Willis specifically, Freeze hasn’t had those calls with NFL teams yet.
“But they’re coming,” he said. “And I think everybody’s kind of in a wait-and-see mode, to be honest with Malik. … I don’t know of anybody that’s just gonna say, because he had one good year, ‘Let’s say he’s our guy.’ And all this talk is worthless unless we put a product on the field in Year 2 for him that is equal or better than what they’ve seen.”
Just like the good plays he made in 2020, Willis isn’t willing to speak about his NFL potential. But he will acknowledge reaching his potential is something that he craves, and then some.
“That’s something I pray for,” he said. “‘Can I reach it?’ I just pray for it, to reach the potential that I’ve been blessed with. That’s it. And even when I reach it, pass it. Keep going.”