LYNCHBURG, Va. – We hear it from the youngest of ages, “Hard work pays off.”
That old adage is true — even if the payoff comes unexpectedly. Just ask Malik Willis.
“I was just trying to come play football and graduate. I didn’t even think I had a shot at the NFL for real,” Willis said when asked about the thought of being a top prospect for the upcoming NFL Draft.
His college coach Hugh Freeze took a leap of faith as well.
“There was no tape of any significant snaps at all,” Freeze said.
But there was a fierce drive, tenacious and humble spirit with an undeniable will to win in the six-foot Auburn transfer. It showed in 2020 as he led Liberty to a 9-1 record in 10 starts as he became the ultimate dual-threat.
If that wasn’t enough proof, his Pro-Day held in March certainly was. It drew the likes of nearly every NFL team to the Hill City, including Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
“It’s not my place to say where I should and where I shouldn’t go but I can have a feeling of where I think I could be,” Willis said. “That’s not to say I’m better than everybody that’s just confidence in my ability and the backing I have with God.”
As Willis embarks on what he hopes will be a successful NFL career, he doesn’t have to look far for advice. Former Liberty running back Rashad Jennings spent eight years in the league, his breakout seasons coming with the New York Giants. The two recently had a conversation in which Jennings said he was able to share his knowledge and insight of the game with the rising star.
“To be honest with you, I sucked,” Jennings said. “Now, because of that, I worked really hard and because I worked really hard I ended up getting better.”
“He’ll be a first-round draft pick and he has this humongous gift under the tree. Now, the challenge becomes how do you put it into your room? All these things will start to come. So, those are the conversations I was having with him,” said Jennings.
In the years to come, that’s all Willis is hoping to do--excel at the highest level and define his own level of success.
“His core values set him up for success. He’s not easily swayed by what others say or think or not being so result-oriented that this world forces on you,” said Freeze.
“With a grateful heart, you’re always happy,” said Willis. “That’s why you always see me smiling because whether it’s a bad throw or perfect throw, I have an opportunity and blessed with the ability so it’s up to me to work hard and try to go get it.”
The 2022 NFL Draft begins on Thursday at 8 p.m. from Las Vegas, Nevada.