Willis Departure Leaves More Questions on Malzahn
It took longer than expected, but reports began to circulate less than a week ago that Malik Willis will elect to enter the famed transfer portal. Although no official word has been made about this, sources close to Willis say that a conversation between the two-year back up and the coaching staff took place last Thursday.
Exiting the spring, coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham cut the quarterback race to two players, effectively excluding Willis, who had the most experience of the three. True freshman and former five-star recruit Bo Nix will battle it out with redshirt freshman and prototypical dual-threat Joey Gatewood.
For many fans, Willis didn’t have much of a chance to battle the two other quarterbacks, and with the current transfer rules in college football, Willis was as good as gone in most fans’ eyes when spring ball concluded.
It wasn’t like he had a bad spring game that sealed the deal. Willis was quietly efficient throwing the ball, yet didn’t have a chance to show off his Nick Marshall-esq ability that made him a viable option as a backup under Jarrett Stidham the last two seasons
Bo Nix and Joey Gatewood stole the show, but it was Willis who scored the first points. While the throw was into double coverage and not very pretty, it got the job done. That’s been Willis’ MO in his limited playing time, especially as a freshman when he used his legs to exploit defenses. There was a lot of promise shown in that small sample size, but 2018 offered fewer opportunities. There just didn’t seem to be a lot of improvement.
If anything, there looked to be some sort of regression. Willis looked less comfortable his second year as Stidham’s backup than in his first. There were some bad reads here and there, but more importantly, the lasting image of Willis in 2018 was Malzahn chewing him out as he came off the field because he threw the ball on an RPO when Malzahn clearly wanted him to run the ball.
Obviously it’s tough to judge why that conversation happened and just what transpired on the field and in the huddle, but one thing was for sure: Malzahn didn’t have faith in Willis. That begs the question, was it about Willis? Was it about the two other QB’s? Or was it some concoction of oddities over the last year, such as last year’s struggling offensive line and dysfunctional play calling from two differing offensive minds?
Regardless, Willis’ time on the Plains is done, but don’t be surprised if he moves down the road and joins Troy’s new head man, Chip Lindsey. That would likely form a point-scoring machine in Troy.
Taking a deeper look into what Willis’ departure means for the Auburn program and not just hashing out what others have said, it can be safely said that the jury is still out on whether Gus Malzahn can recruit and develop a quarterback. After the train wreck that was the Jeremy Johnson experiment, slightly alleviated for a few weeks with Sean White’s play in 2016 (read: handing the ball off to Kam Pettway and Kerryon Johnson), Malzahn had an opportunity with Willis to show that yes, he could recruit and develop a quarterback out of high school. Willis presented a good opportunity for Gus to show what he could do.
Willis was electric in high school and put up gaudy numbers, but he wasn’t an A-list player. He was a decent backup to a future NFL talent, and while no one was chanting his name during the doldrums of 2018, fans at least had some faith in him and anticipated a reversion to the offense that put Auburn on the map in 2013 and 2014. Developing Willis would show that Malzahn could learn from his mistakes, make good on his shortcomings of years past, and he do it in year seven, likely his most important year to date.
Yet, in year seven, those questions will not really be answered. In fact, it is quite possible that another lackluster year will find Malzahn not quite on the hot seat BECAUSE he will be starting another young quarterback— a built-in excuse for Malzahn. Yet, isn’t it possible that Willis’ departure answers the development question?
It’s certainly possible that Willis himself is to blame for not progressing, and it is certainly possible that Nix and Gatewood are just that talented. What is more likely, however, is that Malzahn and Co. do not have the ability to develop players, despite having two full years to prepare a backup quarterback. It’s not like this is a new question. Quarterbacks simply don’t get better under him, and his three most successful signal callers at Auburn were all transfers. In the middle are a ton of guys who didn’t pan out on the field or transferred, never to be heard from again.
2019 is a new year, and it started with the Music City Bowl blowout of Purdue, highlighted by Malzahn’s return to play calling. While there has been a lot of bad data about his ability to develop quarterbacks, there’s a lot of good data on his ability to call plays.
If Auburn wants to return to the elite level and stay there, as Alabama, Georgia, and Clemson have done, Malzahn must find ways to develop quarterbacks out of high school as those elite programs have done. Those programs have seen their share of new blood supplanting experienced players and seeing those players depart for other schools. The difference is, their new-blood players looked the part on game day as, for the most part, did those experienced players when they emerged at other schools.
Make no mistake, if Auburn has a rough year, Malzahn will parlay having to use a young quarterback into one more season. Has he learned from his mistakes and remedied them with Kenny Dillingham? Is Dillingham the missing piece that can develop quarterbacks? While we would like to believe that fans will know by the end of this coming season, Willis’ departure, for whatever reason, will truly mark the date that the jury went out on Gus Malzahn.