LAS VEGAS — Only one quarterback was selected Thursday night in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft, and it wasn’t Malik Willis.
For more than three hours, the former Liberty University standout waited here for his name to be called during the 87th NFL draft. Not only did Willis drop out of the first round, but the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team widely believed to be high on Willis and in need of a signal-caller after the retirement of future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger, passed on Willis and selected University of Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett with the 20th overall pick. It also marked the first time since 2016 that a Black quarterback was not drafted in the first round.
The waiting game will continue for Willis on Friday as the second and third rounds occur.
“Still super appreciative and thankful for this opportunity to be in Vegas and is a prime example on adversity and continuing to grow in your faith,” Willis tweeted after the first round was complete.
Willis, however, is used to overcoming disappointment and proving his doubters wrong. In fact, he traveled an improbable path to even emerge as an NFL draft prospect, and he’ll surely draw on those experiences for fuel whenever his NFL career officially begins.
Back in college, Willis had to look inward during another rough time for him.
Buried on Auburn’s depth chart, the then-sophomore passer could have easily bemoaned his circumstances and pointed the finger at others, as countless players in similarly frustrating situations often do. Instead, Willis held up a mirror and vowed to make changes, believing he held the key to realizing his potential.
After transferring from Auburn to Liberty, Willis got on track. Quarterback coach Quincy Avery, who has tutored Willis for years, believes his protégé will make another comeback of sorts in the NFL.
“The thing that I think about the most is the direction he took, the things he accepted he needed to do differently after he found out he wasn’t going to get an opportunity to play at Auburn,” Avery said on the phone. “A lot of times, young men who are in that situation look at everything else other than the things they did wrong in the situation, the things they should have done differently, that led to the reasons why they didn’t play. It’s just easier to focus on everything else. That’s just human nature.
“But just thinking back to how introspective he was, in terms of really examining the mistakes he had made that prevented him from getting the opportunity to start at quarterback, it was very important for him. Just thinking back to all those conversations that we had at that time, and the things he committed to doing differently, I remember having the feeling like he was at the beginning of an important process. And then he went out and did all the things differently that he needed to do.”
There’s so much more that goes into succeeding as a quarterback than merely being able to make big plays with one’s passing arm and legs, which Willis learned the hard way.
Primarily because he lacks the prototypical height for a passer, Willis, who at the NFL scouting combine in March was measured at 6 feet, ½ inch, wasn’t rated as a top recruit. But Auburn’s coaching staff, recognizing Willis’ elite arm strength and athleticism, offered the Atlanta native a scholarship to play quarterback.
In two seasons at Auburn, Willis had only 14 pass attempts. In spring practice before Willis’ junior season, the handwriting was on the wall in flashing red neon: Barring unforeseen developments, he would remain on the bench for the remainder of his eligibility at the school.
Avery, who conducts quarterback camps and individual training sessions in Atlanta, had worked with Willis since his junior season in high school. Willis needed Avery to be brutally honest with him.
Avery didn’t disappoint.
“There were things on the field that he wanted to work on – but it was far more than that,” Avery said. “The main thing, the changes he needed to make, were much more about just being a quarterback and everything that goes into that, which is much more than just what happens on the field.
“It’s about how you show up, when you show up and the level of accountability you have to your teammates. It’s about how everyone in the locker room looks at you. There are things that you have to do in order to earn that trust. Those are the things he started to understand. That experience showed him there were things he had to do differently.”
For Willis, it wasn’t just about working harder. He had to work smarter and take a different approach to playing the position.
“After leaving Auburn, I just decided I was going to be a sponge [to learn the art of playing quarterback],” Willis said recently. “Just focus on taking my athleticism out of the picture and being more cerebral.”
Over the past few years, Avery has assisted Willis in making an impressive transformation. According to Avery, the team that eventually picks Willis will get a quarterback capable of accomplishing big things.
“Guys in the locker room will gravitate toward him, not just because of the things he can do on the field, but also because he’s authentic,” Avery said. “I’ve known him for a very long time, and he has grown into someone who’s comfortable being himself. Because he’s so authentic, because of who he is and what he does, people will follow him.”
At a crossroads while in college, Willis chose a path that has him on the cusp of joining the NFL. All it took was to acknowledge that he had to shoulder more responsibility, which is exactly what the best quarterbacks do.