Malik Willis: A Scouting Report
Freshman quarterback Malik Wills has been turning heads during Auburn's spring practice (photo: Columbus Ledger-Enquirer)
There has been no hotter name coming out of Auburn’s spring practice the last few days than freshman quarterback Malik Willis. It’s ironic that the week Woody Barrett was featured as The Next Jalen Hurts saw Willis emerging from obscurity following Auburn’s first scrimmage last weekend.
“He’s a stud, there’s no doubt about it,” starting center Austin Golson said. “He’s going to be really good. He kind of reminds me … of Nick [Marshall]. He can run and make plays whenever plays might not be there. I’m really excited about his future.”
Of the five touchdowns scored in the first scrimmage, Willis accounted for two. He and Barrett were “live” in the scrimmage, and Willis used it to his benefit the same way that Auburn legend Nick Marshall did four years ago. Willis used his feet to make plays and set up the passing game, throwing touchdowns to John Franklin, III and Darius Slayton.
Just what should Auburn fans expect from Willis?
We will reference his Hudl.com highlight vids. Keep in mind that the 6′-2″, 185 pound freshman didn’t become a full-time quarterback until his senior year at Roswell, GA. Like Marshall, Willis is going to be deemed undersized for an SEC quarterback. Malik is reported to run a 4.4 40-yard dash, but he is likely closer to a 4.6 player with limited top end. However, top end speed and 40-yard dash numbers don’t really matter when you have a first move as good as Willis’. Malik has a Marshall-esque first-step burst off of his upfield plant that typically puts him in space and allows him to build enough of a lead to pick up chunks of yardage.
Will he be able to break 70-yard runs? Probably not. But his perimeter attack is very good, and first downs win ball games, especially in the fourth quarter. This similarity to Marshall is what has many coaches, players, and fans excited. Willis can attack the edge just as Marshall did. Will he be able to do it as well as Marshall? That’s a tough question to answer and a very tall order for a true freshman, who is likely to red shirt this year.
The first thing his highlights viewers need to understand is just how basic an offense Roswell ran. Typically, Roswell lined up with trips (three receivers) to one side with one split end on the other side, running a variation of three plays. The first was essentially all vertical routes. Occasionally, one of the routes was turned into a post route to force a safety to break to one side of the field or the other. The next play was a wheel route out of the slot in combination of the vertical routes. Lastly, the receivers frequently ran a slant/stop route combo if the defense began to sit on the deep routes. This last combo was especially efficient and prevalent in the red zone.
The next formation used was typically a single-back set with a halfback behind the tackle and twins to one side. Again, the plays were very basic. This was strictly a run/pass option (RPO) where Willis read the defense. Since it was his highlight film, we never see him hand the ball off. Instead, he either pulls the ball, plants (with the aforementioned move) or hits the pass option, either a smoke route or a one-on-one opportunity, with the other receiver. As such, we don’t know how many times he made bad reads or just how well he actually read the edge rusher. There are a few plays where he makes the poorer of the two reads, but the defense is unable to do anything about either option.
What viewers do see is a very, very good runner who has a great first move, good open field speed, and is willing to fight for extra yardage every play.
In regards to the passing game, there isn’t much to say about Willis. The Roswell passing attack was very simple, reminiscent of the 2013 Auburn passing attack with Sammie Coates. Willis had access to some good receivers, and their size, speed, and ability are evident to the point that Willis’ videos led me to research two of the players shown in his highlights.
His mechanics aren’t bad. In fact, his footwork is already better than many players reviewed by Track ‘Em Tigers. However, his arm strength is limited, and we can’t infer much about his ability to read complex coverages or fit passes into coverage. Like Marshall, it seems his strength lies in heaving it as far as he can and knowing which shoulder to throw it to instead of knowing which player to throw it to and when.
Willis excelled on the field because of the simplicity of the system and how he was defended. Many of the opposing defenses ran three-man fronts, occasionally mixing in a stunt, twist, or linebacker edge rusher. Willis simply outran three-man fronts and did an excellent job throwing into the space a rusher vacated. When defenses tried to clamp down on his running by employing a 5-2 defense, he just threw the ball down the field and let his superior receivers take over. When defenses tried to play heads-up, he ran the RPO and read it.
The simplicity of the system isn’t a knock on Willis, but a testament to his ability and that of the players surrounding him. The question to be answered by Willis has little to do with him and more to do with how good his high-school supporting cast might have been.
In conclusion, Malik Willis plays very differently than the three QB’s with whom he is competing. His game harkens more to the days of Nick Marshall than to the last couple of years and gives Willis a legitimate chance to do something special in his time at Auburn.