Syracuse Hosts Liberty and Talented QB

Oct 16, 2020

Syracuse defensive end Kingsley Jonathan (57) strips the ball from former Liberty quarterback Stephen "Buckshot" Calvert (12) in last year's matchup. SU should have more difficult disrupting mobile LU quarterback Malik Willis this year.
Credit Cuse.com

All Malik Willis ever wanted was an opportunity to play. This Saturday, the dual threat quarterback gets his first start against a power five school when he and the 4-0 Liberty Flames march into the Dome to play 1-3 Syracuse.

Years ago, the signal caller could have never imagined he would wait this long to start against a big conference school. Willis committed to Auburn in the winter of 2017, but he never found solid footing in the starting rotation – stuck behind current New England Patriots backup Jarrett Stidham.

“I just never got a chance in games to show that I could throw it,” Willis told ESPN in 2019. “It was all in practice.”

From Willis’ standout high school senior season (over 2500 yards passing, 1000 yards rushing, 37 TDs), to September 19, 2020, the Atlanta native started zero games.

In the limited playing time with the Tigers, Willis completed 11 of 14 pass attempts for 69 yards and one touchdown, while adding 309 rushing yards on 28 attempts and two scores with his legs.

Coincidentally, the final touchdown the quarterback scored in his Auburn career came late in the third quarter of a 53-0 blow out against, you guessed it, the Liberty Flames in 2018.

Willis entered 2019 with the hopes of winning the leading signal caller job for the Tigers. In camp, though, it became clear that the junior was not going to beat out true freshman Bo Nix or redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood, so he rolled the dice in the transfer portal.

On July 3, the quarterback found a new home as a member of the Liberty. Willis applied for an immediate eligibility waiver but was denied, pushing his Flames debut back to 2020.

Some might expect a move from Auburn – the 13th winningest program in FBS history – to Liberty – a school that began the transition from the FCS in 2017 – to be jarring, but Willis did not feel that when he arrived in Lynchburg, Virginia.

“I think [the campus] is what really set it apart,” Willis said before the season in an interview with the Liberty Flames Sports Network. “It’s a power five facility … we are way ahead of the curve.”

Willis and the Flames have shown they are far exceeding the expectations of a team in its second year of bowl eligibility. With the Auburn transfer as the starter, Liberty is off to a 4-0 start.

LU running back Peytton Pickett (red) is swallowed up by a pair of SU tacklers (white) last season. Liberty rushed for -4 yards in that matchup, but is primed to beat that this year with Malik Willis under center.
Credit Cuse.com

Willis enters the matchup versus SU with 935 yards and six total touchdowns in three starts. The signal caller has helped his team gain national attention (Liberty received top 25 votes in the Coaches’ Poll the last two weeks). The quarterback has also attracted individual recognition from opposing head coaches like Syracuse’s Dino Babers.

“[Willis is a] very, very talented athlete,” said Babers this Monday. “[He’s got a] strong arm, very explosive legs … He’s a guy who can take off on scrambles and he can house-call it.”

Willis has found the end zone with his legs four times this season, which leads all Flames players. The dual threat is a weapon in the red zone for Hugh Freeze’s bunch. All four of Willis’ ground scores were runs of fewer than 20 yards.

This does not mean Syracuse can sleep on the signal caller’s ability to run earlier in drives or on plays when he is supposed to pass. Just as the FIU defense Willis’ went up against in week two. The Panthers saw the dual threat turn a near sack into a 67-yard run, and eventually a game-deciding field goal.

When watching Willis’ burn defenders with his smooth, yet violent, cuts across the field, it is easy to make comparisons to former Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, or former Virginia Tech signal caller Michael Vick. On Saturday, however, Syracuse attempts to make Willis appear more like Georgia Tech dual threat Jeff Sims.

The Yellow Jackets quarterback is the only signal caller the Orange have taken on this season that remotely mirrors the style of play they’ll see under center from the Flames. SU had success against Georgia Tech’s Jeff Sims (37-20 win for SU) by keeping the talented runner in the pocket as much as possible. That could once again be the key for defensive coordinator Tony White and co. if Syracuse wishes to contain a dangerous dual threat like Malik Willis.

Syracuse and Liberty battle at noon Saturday. Tune in to WAER 30 minutes prior for St. Joseph’s Health Countdown to Kickoff.