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NFL Draft 2022: Malik Willis sees meteoric rise from unheralded recruit in Georgia to projected first-round pick

Willis' coach at Roswell High School recalls the game where he thought, "Holy cow, we’ve got something really unique here.”
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Malik Willis, Liberty

Malik Willis is about to see his life change forever.

Projected to be a first-round pick and possibly the first quarterback selected in this year’s NFL Draft, which begins tonight in Las Vegas, Willis will soon be the new face of a franchise.

Before he torched defenses week after week as a transfer at Liberty University and became a hot commodity for NFL teams in need of a quarterback, Willis used a breakout senior year at Roswell High School to vault himself to the collegiate level.

Now the No. 1 quarterback prospect according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, Willis hasn’t been at the top of these lists very long. 


“I know I’m biased so everybody can think I’m crazy, but anybody that passes on him will feel like teams that passed on Giannis in the 2013 NBA Draft,” said his coach at Roswell, John Ford. “He has special intangibles, special tangibles, and anybody passing on him for someone at another position is crazy. Whether it’s Detroit at 2, Pittsburgh at 20 or anywhere in between, someone is going to get an absolute home run that will change their franchise, that coach’s life, that GM’s life forever for the good. That’s just how special Malik is.”

Willis' path isn’t the tale of a five-star recruit turned college superstar who’s finally making it to the big stage. At both the high school and college levels, he was a late bloomer.

Willis entered his senior year in 2016 as a recent Virginia Tech commit. Considered a three-star recruit, he didn’t have a very long list of college offers. 

On top of that, most of the schools (including Virginia Tech) going after the 6-foot-1 dual-threat quarterback viewed him as more of an “athlete.” Some teams envisioned him as a running back, wide receiver or even a defensive back.

He had just transferred to Roswell after three years at Westlake High School in Atlanta, where he didn’t crack the starting lineup for the varsity squad until his junior year. 

However, it wouldn’t take long for his new head coach to see how special of a player he had running the offense.

Ford saw flashes of greatness in Willis’ first game with the Hornets, and those flashes became more and more prevalent as the season went on and the young quarterback developed. 

Roswell beat Colquitt County 34-3 in its third game of the season. Ford watched from the sideline as Willis took over the game and led the Hornets to an emphatic victory over the team they lost to in the state championship game the year prior.

“The physical tools were never in doubt to me,” Ford said. “The game slowed down for him a lot (against Colquitt County), and that’s where you thought, ‘Holy cow, we’ve got something really unique here.’”

By the end of the season — during which Willis totaled 2,500-plus passing yards, 1,000-plus rushing yards and 37 touchdowns as Roswell went 14-1 and fell just short of winning a state title — Willis had done enough to earn some more offers.

And more college coaches saw him for what he was: a game changer at the quarterback position.

Auburn offered Willis as a quarterback in late December 2016 just before he was set to enroll at Virginia Tech, and he quickly jumped at the opportunity to play on the Plains.

At Auburn, he spent his time backing up Jarrett Stidham, who is now with the New England Patriots. 

Willis attempted 13 passes in two seasons with the Tigers before transferring to Liberty University. There, he blossomed into one of college football's top quarterbacks and a highlight machine.

The average stat line for Willis in his two seasons at Liberty was 220 passing yards and two touchdowns in addition to about 70 yards and one touchdown on the ground.

“That offense was perfect for him, and a guy like coach (Hugh) Freeze saying ‘you’re my guy; you’re my quarterback’ really empowered Malik to unleash the full version of himself,” said Ford, who's now coach at Effingham County High School.

Some NFL scouts and analysts have compared Willis’ arm strength to Josh Allen’s and his mobility to that of Lamar Jackson. He’s an athletic freak who has big-play potential every time he touches the ball.

Mock drafts have had Willis going anywhere between the Carolina Panthers with the sixth pick and the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 20th pick. A few have predicted he could go as high as No. 2 overall to the Detroit Lions.

When Willis does hear his name called, he will become the second player from the 2016 Roswell team to be drafted. 

His old teammate Xavier McKinney — a former five-star safety who starred for Alabama — was drafted 36th overall by the New York Giants in the second round of the 2020 draft. 

There’s a good chance their teammate Jordan Tucker, an offensive lineman from the University of North Carolina, will also be swiped up later in this year’s draft.