LYNCHBURG, Va. — Liberty quarterback Malik Willis impressed a school pro-day record 60 NFL coaches, scouts and executives from all 32 teams with the arm strength and athleticism that has him projected as a first-round draft pick.
Willis was particularly impressive Tuesday with an improvised strike that traveled 65 yards in the air, with no time for the 22-year-old to set before launching the bomb.
But what seemed to most impress Willis, who came into the day without any goals or expectations, happened the night before while having dinner with Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
“I’m like, ‘Mike Tomlin’s eating chicken wings?'” Willis said in amazement after his session that included 70 scripted throws. “That’s what you want. I mean, he’s a normal dude.”
Tomlin, who has the 20th pick in the April 28 draft, was one of two head coaches in attendance. The other was Carolina coach Matt Rhule, whose team has the sixth pick.
Rhule and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo spent most of Willis’ 70 scripted plays standing within 10 to 15 yards of the quarterback. Carolina’s Scott Fitterer, one of four general managers/executives in attendance, wasn’t far behind.
The other general managers/executives were Atlanta’s Terry Fontenot, Pittsburgh’s Kevin Colbert and Washington’s Marty Hurney.
Carolina and Atlanta came up short last week in attempting to trade for Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson, who ultimately went to Cleveland.
So both teams are in the market for a quarterback, even though Atlanta signed Marcus Mariota after trading Matt Ryan to Indianapolis and the Panthers still have Sam Darnold under contract.
Washington also remains in the market despite trading for Carson Wentz, as does Pittsburgh despite signing Mitch Trubisky in free agency.
None appear to be long-term solutions. Willis and Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, who held his pro day Monday, could be that. They appear the most likely signal-callers to go in the first round, perhaps the top 10, of what is perceived as a draft with a weak quarterback class.
There was nothing weak about Willis’ pro day, which drew fewer than the 120 observers originally expected after free agency reset the quarterback market.
The ball exploded off his hand, as several coaches wanted to see firsthand. No play was more impressive than the 65-yarder on which Willis took the snap from center, dropped back, scrambled to his right, reversed his field to the left and then hit his receiver in stride at the goal line.
The throw drew smiles from coaches like McAdoo. It drew applause from teammates and family members.
Willis responded by sprinting down the field to hip bump his receiver before finishing off the session with a few red zone throws.
“What did you think of that?” Liberty coach Hugh Freeze said afterward.
The improvisation and throw supported everything Freeze has been telling NFL teams for months: that Willis has the talent to be a star in the pros even though he didn’t always face top-level opposition at Liberty.
When asked by three teams earlier in the day what Willis needed to improve on, Freeze cited “truncated dropbacks” that at times throw off the timing on plays.
But in terms of raw ability and the athleticism to improvise as he did on the 65-yarder, Freeze said there’s not an NFL team that couldn’t use Willis based on the quarterback protection he saw in the playoffs.
Freeze noted that Willis made plays at Liberty “where guys around him aren’t apples to apples” with the opponent in terms of talent. He said Willis won’t have problems picking up an NFL playbook or with football IQ.
The pro day also showcased what Freeze sees every day in practice, that Willis knows how to enjoy himself while being productive.
“I try to always go out and have fun,” Willis said. “This is a children’s game, and we’re trying to get paid doing it. That’s cool in itself.”
Willis didn’t participate in any drills other than throwing. Asked why he didn’t run the 40-yard dash, he smiled and said, “I’m fast.”
“If I ran the 40 it would be nice, but it was no point,” said Willis, who reportedly ran the 40 in 4.37 seconds as a sophomore at Auburn. “I would have just proved that I’m fast. And if you already think I’m fast and then I ran fast, then I didn’t really do anything.
“But I’m fast.”
Willis also is quick-witted. He showed that when asked what it’s like to have so many people nationally talking about him on television and social media the past few months.
“They be bored,” he said. “I wear they’re bored. The national spotlight, it’s kind of weird. It’s like, ‘Hey, you care more than some people I know care.’ I’m like, ‘Dang, you act like we’re cousins.'”