Liberty’s Malik Willis broke out as one of the nation’s elite dual-threat quarterbacks last year in his first season as a collegiate starter. Now among the top QBs projected to go in the first round of next year’s NFL draft, he’s listening to God instead of the hype.
Malik Willis needs a receiver. He’s roaming freely in the red zone at the north end of Liberty University’s Williams Stadium, clutching a brand-new LU-branded Nike football. But he has no one to throw to.
So I step up. He’s being photographed on a muggy afternoon in late July, and we want some shots of him in the act of passing. I’m already standing in the end zone, I might as well catch some balls from college football’s breakout quarterback of 2020.
He’s asked to just lightly toss the ball. In his mind he is. To this receiver on the other end of those throws, however, I’m wondering if there’s a helmet nearby. After five, six, seven throws, I can’t help but think that if this rock-hard football slips through my hands, I’m leaving Lynchburg with a black eye, bloody nose or a few missing teeth.
Maybe it’s intentional, considering I had just forced Willis to endure a sit-down interview, during which he never seemed all too comfortable. Because he’s never very comfortable in interviews or talking about himself.
Or maybe he’s simply throwing exactly where he’s looking, because he’s that good and he’s looking me in the eye. The ball keeps coming right at my face. Sans gloves, I don’t immediately regret the decision to catch passes from a future NFL QB, but I am grateful the pass-and-catch session lasts only a few minutes.
Our photographer gets what she needs. I don’t announce it publicly, but my hands are stinging. Those NFL evaluators are right when they say Willis possesses a cannon. When I joke with him about wishing I had gloves, he sincerely apologizes. “Oh man, I should have thrown those softer.” His eyes squint and a big grin grows amid his nicely trimmed goatee.
It’s the most relaxed he’s been all afternoon — because he’s on the football field, where he just wants to “have fun.” In front of the video camera, under the spotlights, talking about the breakthrough season he and his Liberty teammates enjoyed last year — not as much fun.
But when you lead the Flames to a 10-1 record, their first-ever top-25 ranking, and a No. 17 final ranking in the AP poll, you’re going to attract some attention. That included the program’s first two victories over ACC opponents (Syracuse and Virginia Tech) and its first win over a nationally-ranked FBS team (No. 9 Coastal Carolina). It was barely Liberty’s third year at the FBS level.
And you’re going to insert yourself into the Heisman Trophy conversation when you’re the leading rushing QB in the country, putting up ground numbers better than most running backs (944 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns). When you post 3,194 yards of total offense, 2,250 passing yards, 20 passing touchdowns and only six interceptions in your first full season as a starter, people are going to make projections.
Entering the 2021 college football season, many experts include Willis in the first round of their 2022 NFL mock drafts. No player from Liberty has ever gone higher than the fourth round.
I ask Willis — inside the Liberty football media room, prior to the photo shoot — if this hype about the NFL draft surprises him.
“It’s just talk. I don’t really buy too much into it,” he says.
Anyone who knows Willis well will tell you he prefers not to talk about himself. “Humble” is often the adjective. So it’s of little surprise that he won’t speak much about what may or may not happen after college. He’s more concerned about this season, not next season, or even last season. Last year’s done, this year’s here, next year can wait.
What does come as a surprise, however, is that Willis may consider staying at Liberty after 2021. He’s a 22-year-old redshirt senior, but with the NCAA granting all student-athletes an additional year of eligibility due to the coronavirus pandemic, he could stay in Lynchburg another season. When asked about how he’s gearing up for what I assumed would be his last college football season, Willis says in his reserved, soft-spoken manner, “It might not be.”
That decision may depend on where he is in his relationship with God by the time 2022 rolls around. That was one of the key reasons he chose to attend Liberty in the first place.
“I just feel like He keeps beating it in my head: Just know how many people you influence, know what your impact does to people. … I’ve just got to be cognizant of how I want to leave my mark on them, what I want them to remember from me. I just don’t want it to be negative.”— Malik Willis
Upon graduating from Roswell (Ga.) High School in 2017, the first-team all-Georgia selection set out for Auburn University, one of the few Power 5 schools that recruited him as a quarterback. But after two years and only 14 passes attempted as a backup to Jarrett Stidham, and after not earning the starting job during 2019 spring practice, Willis entered the NCAA transfer portal.
Former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze had just been hired to lead Liberty the previous December, a move that caught the eye of Willis. With a former SEC coach at the helm and a senior quarterback on his way out, Liberty seemed like it could be a good opportunity for Willis. After visiting the picturesque campus nestled at the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, meeting coaches and staff, and discovering the university’s “training champions for Christ” mantra, Willis was more than intrigued.
He was sold when he toured the pristine indoor football facility and saw 2 Corinthians 3:17 on the wall above the east end zone. The verse reads, “Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (NKJV). That just so happened to be the verse of the day on his Bible app the day he visited campus.
“It was the people here, the opportunity (to play right away) and the ability to get closer to God,” Willis says when asked why he chose Liberty. “I mean, I feel like we all are at different spaces in where we want to be with God, in our relationship with God, and that’s just the different paths of lives we take. But I felt like I needed to get closer to Him. And the people here definitely influenced that a lot and made it a part of what they were trying to do in order to get us closer to God, no matter where we are in our stage, to help us on our journey.
“And the opportunity that presented itself with Coach Freeze coming here and all the other coaches, and just where Liberty was beginning to get in [Division I] and be an FBS program, it just seemed like a right fit.”
NCAA transfer rules forced Willis to sit out the 2019 season, but though he couldn’t play in games, he still got involved with the team. That included meeting with team chaplain Ed Gomes, a former Liberty basketball player. Willis would attend chapel with other players and coaches, participate in weekly devotionals among the team, and really bond with his new teammates through small-group sessions in which players genuinely share what’s going on in their lives. They might discuss what’s impacting them from a recent Bible reading or share real stories revealing more of who they are as a person. Willis soaked up the Liberty culture.
His personal faith journey began at a young age, when his grandma would take him and his younger sister, Destini, and brother, Marquis, to church every Sunday.
“When you’re a little kid you’re just going in there, you’re kind of just there, eating peppermints and whatever snacks Grandma got for you,” Willis says. “But as you get older, you start to grow and learn what [faith] actually means and how it impacts everybody’s lives, and just how much He does for us. We don’t even realize it.”
Things began to click in ninth grade, when Willis and his football teammates would attend Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings every Friday before their games. The messages made him realize, “I want to use whatever I have as a platform, even in high school, to pass it along to other people and get them on the right path.”
Now that he’s starring at Liberty, after just one season on the field, he understands his platform is growing. And he respects the responsibility.
“I just feel like He keeps beating it in my head: Just know how many people you influence, know what your impact does to people,” Willis says. “I feel like that’s just a reiterating thing because I keep going to these places being a counselor (at high school QB showcases like the Manning Passing Academy and Elite 11), and I’m impacting a lot of young people’s lives. They’re looking up to me for things to do, things not to do and I’ve just got to be cognizant of how I want to leave my mark on them, what I want them to remember from me. I just don’t want it to be negative.”
Being a quarterback, he has little choice about being a leader; that comes with the position. While he’s more of the lead-by-example type, Gomes says Willis has built such strong relationships with his teammates that when he does speak, they listen.
“If Coach Freeze asks somebody on the football team to give a speech, I don’t think Malik would be the first person to step up and say, ‘Hey, I’ll speak,’” Gomes says. “Now, if Coach said, ‘Hey Malik, I would like for you to give a speech to the team next week,’ [Malik] would say, ‘Coach, I’d be honored.’ He’d prepare and do a great job.”
He’s also a spiritual leader. Gomes says each position group on the football team has a designated spiritual leader, and Willis is that for the quarterbacks.
And he likes to wear his faith on his sleeve — literally. On his right throwing arm during games all season was a black armband with white letters that said, “God’s Plan.” Later in the season, he added a white sleeve on his left arm with “Faith over Fear” in black lettering.
“You’re using the abilities that God gives you and go out there and glorify His name and try to spread the Gospel,” Willis says. “That was the easiest way I could show it off, really. I mean, I got a couple tattoos, but you can’t really see that when I’m out there running around. … I found those [sleeves] and was like, ‘Perfect.’”
One of his tattoos is “TGFE” — Thank God For Everything. On social media, he regularly ends his posts with “#TGFE.” The acronym is also on one of the T-shirts in his new merchandise line. He jokes that he may need to trademark it.
“After so much He’s done for me, that’s just a constant reminder of where it comes from,” Willis says. “That’s why I choose to always give the glory to Him. People say I’m humble, but I don’t really know if it’s humble. It’s just very, very obedient, knowing that it’s not me at all …
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