NFL.com analyst and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah takes a "first look" at some of college football's top players for 2021. This is the eighth in a series of scouting reports that will run throughout the offseason.
Jets first-round pick Zach Wilson wasn't the only college quarterback who seemingly came out of nowhere to burst onto the radars of NFL scouts in 2020. After sitting out a year following a transfer from Auburn, where he served as Jarrett Stidham's backup, Liberty's Malik Willis broke out in a big way, too.
He attempted just 14 passes during his Tigers career from 2017-2018, but Willis exploded for a 20:6 TD-INT ratio, 8.5 yards per attempt, 944 rushing yards and 14 rushing TDs (leading all QBs in the last two categories) in his first season as a full-time starter. As you might expect, he's now one of the most buzzed about prospects in the country.
After watching three of Willis' game tapes from his sensational 2020 campaign, I offer my initial scouting report on the Flames' star quarterback:
Height, weight: 6-foot-1, 215 pounds (school measurements).
2020 statistics: 170 of 265 (64.2%) for 2,260 yards, 20 TDs and 6 INTs; 141 carries for 944 yards (6.7 average), 14 TDs (10 games played).
Game tape watched: vs. Western Kentucky (Sept. 19, 2020), vs. Syracuse (Oct. 17, 2020), vs. N.C. State (Nov. 21, 2020).
What I liked: I wrote the word "explosive" in my notes numerous times while studying these three games. Willis has dynamic/quick hands and he generates incredible velocity on the football. He has a lot of juice/twitch in his feet during his setup and he is sudden to avoid and escape pressure to extend plays or take off. As a runner, he doesn't have elite top speed, but his short-area burst is impressive. He can explode through tacklers. He made several wow plays in these games. He drives small-window hole shots (between CB and safety playing Cover 2) from the far hash and flashes the ability to make some incredible cross-body throws on the move.
Where he needs to improve: Willis needs to be more consistent with his ball placement, decision making and ball security. He has some mechanical issues that will help with the accuracy if he can correct them. He drops his elbow at times and that causes the ball to sail, especially when he tries to overpower the ball down the seam. He has ultimate confidence in his arm and that leads to some ill-timed throws into heavy traffic. His lack of anticipation has led to interceptions and pass breakups. He can be reckless as a runner, and that resulted in some careless fumbles in the games I studied.
Biggest takeaway: Willis has a long way to go in his development, but his arm strength, athleticism and competitiveness create a unique foundation to build on. He needs time to clean up the areas mentioned above, but his impact as a runner will be felt as soon as he steps foot on the field. He is borderline unstoppable on designed QB runs in the red zone. He can pick up those tough yards on QB draws, sweeps or zone reads. He can use his speed to capture the edge or use his strength to run through tackles or carry defenders for several yards.
He reminds me of: I couldn't come up with a clear-cut comparison for Willis. He makes some Josh Allen-type plays but he lacks Allen's rare size (6-5, 237). As a runner, he reminds me a little bit of Taysom Hill because of his suddenness and strength. However, in terms of build and skill set, I think he is most similar to Jalen Hurts. They both have really powerful lower bodies and can use their running ability to take over games. Both are inconsistent passers, but the ability is there and just needs to be developed. Willis is more dynamic and explosive, but I thought Hurts was a more trustworthy decision-maker on the field.
I can't wait to watch him play: at Ole Miss. Scouts will be flocking to Mississippi in droves to take in this contest. Willis and Ole Miss QB Matt Corral are two of the most gifted signal-callers in the country. While Willis has generated a lot of attention in media circles, Corral has quietly emerged as a popular favorite among NFL scouts. If you are an NFL team in need of a QB, it might be time to book a room in Oxford for Nov. 6.