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Malik Willis, the draft’s most scrutinized quarterback, shines at the Senior Bowl

American Team quarterback Malik Willis of Liberty runs through drills during practice for the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. (Butch Dill/AP)
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MOBILE, Ala. — The most scrutinized quarterback in this year’s NFL draft class sat on the dais in the convention center ballroom and peered out at the throng of media. The lights of TV cameras shined bright in his eyes.

“Good morning,” Malik Willis said.

“Good morning,” a few low voices replied.

“Nobody says good morning anymore?” he joked, flashing a grin. “Y’all just staring at each other?”

Over the next 11 minutes, the former Liberty quarterback went on a charm offensive, handling even difficult questions with the same ease he has throwing deep. The 22-year-old is widely regarded as the most physically gifted quarterback in the draft, a talented passer and runner who has excelled during Senior Bowl practices and tantalized teams that dream of finding a signal-caller who can duel with Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Buffalo’s Josh Allen.

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But Willis is raw, perhaps even rawer than Allen was in 2018. Draft experts knock Willis for his intermittent inaccuracy, questionable decision-making and inconsistent mechanics. Sometimes he turned broken plays into big gains. Other times his sloppy footwork in a clean pocket led to an incompletion or interception.

The question is whether teams will be willing to gamble on Willis, who probably will have to sit for a year, or will prefer a safer option such as Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett or Mississippi’s Matt Corral.

For the better part of the next three months, the main focus of Willis’s suitors will probably be trying to determine how probable it is he will reach his high ceiling. There are some concerns about his work ethic — he said his lack of commitment to watching film was part of the reason he lost the starting gig at Auburn in 2019 — but Willis insisted he has grown.

“After leaving Auburn, I just decided I was going to be, like, a sponge to the game and just focus on taking my athleticism out the picture,” he said. “Just focus on being more cerebral and just taking what the defense gives me and use my athleticism when totally necessary.”

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This explains why, when asked about the quarterbacks he admires, he didn’t name anyone known primarily for his scrambling. Willis said he likes the touch that Seattle’s Russell Wilson puts on his deep passes, the many “crazy arm angles” of Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and the anticipatory throws of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan.

Willis, an Atlanta native, began studying Ryan’s throws more in-depth after training with wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. The 10-year veteran, who has played with five teams, raved about Ryan’s ability to diagnose coverages and throw darts to spots before Sanu even broke out of his route.

“He’s just throwing them open ultimately, and that’s how you do it,” Willis said.

In college, Willis showed what he is capable of when he combines his arm, legs and brain. Last year, he threw for 2,857 yards, 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and ran for 878 yards and 13 touchdowns. During Senior Bowl practices, he seemed intent on reminding NFL personnel of his elite traits as he threw on the run and from awkward angles.

Willis’s hardest throw was the fastest at the Senior Bowl (75.7 mph) since 2019, the first year Zebra Technologies, the NFL’s player-tracking data partner, fully measured quarterbacks. He also loved to look deep; his air yards per attempt (22.6) was the second highest.

Yet coaches seemed to recognize Willis’s desire to be cerebral. After he threw long several times Tuesday, the defense adjusted to take away his downfield targets, so Willis checked down to the running back on a swing pass. Detroit quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell clapped hard and nudged Willis, visibly ecstatic about the decision.

“I ain’t know why he’s so excited,” Willis said. “I was just like, ‘Hey, that’s what’s up, man.’ ”

Willis’s size is also key. He’s 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, bigger than Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield and Arizona’s Kyler Murray, who rely on running as part of their games but missed extended time this year with lingering injuries.

Lions Coach Dan Campbell, in charge of the American team in Mobile, complimented the spin on Willis’s throws and how fast he learned the playbook. But he emphasized his build.

“He’s a good-looking player, man,” Campbell said. “He’s built right, looks like he’s built to last.”

During his news conference, Willis alternated between quarterback-speak (“I just try to stay focused on the main thing”) and in-depth explanations about his game and mind-set. He avoided cliches.

When draft analysts say this isn’t a good quarterback class, does that motivate you?

“Not really. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion.” He laughed. “I just keep going to work every day.”

Do you feel like you have something to prove against players from bigger schools?

“Our schedules when I was at Auburn and Liberty were pretty much the same. Y’all focus on that a little bit too much, in my opinion. It’s just more people at the game.”

Does the fact that you had to transfer put a chip on your shoulder?

“I’m not really worried about all that other stuff. I try not to overthink a lot of things because life’s hard enough as it is. Everybody’s going to go through adversity, so I try not to put that as my forefront: ‘Oh, I’ve been through adversity. I’ve been through adversity.’ There’s people that been through worse stuff than me. I’m just happy to be where I am, and I’m happy my adversity helped me grow as a person. More than anything, I’m just blessed to be here.”

The impressive performance in Mobile, on and off the field, may help Willis climb up draft boards throughout the spring. If executives believe there is a good chance he will reach his ceiling, they might be more willing to risk their assets (and possibly careers) by taking him.

But if any of the pressure of the next three months is weighing on Willis, he didn’t show it.

“Y’all have a good one,” he said at the end of his news conference, and this time, a chorus of loud voices said thank you.

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