Never before has Liberty entered a college football season with a player getting the preseason hype that Malik Willis has been getting. Every time you turn around, the Liberty quarterback is being featured in another article or by another analyst. He’s been given odds as a dark horse Heisman candidate and is being looked at as a likely first round draft pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Willis’ presence alone on Liberty’s roster will have more eyes tuned into Flames’ football this year than ever before. Before the season is over, it would be surprising if every NFL team hasn’t stepped foot on Liberty’s campus to watch Malik in person.
Behind Willis, the Flames have five freshmen that are mostly unproven yet talented. Johnathan Bennett is the only exception as he is entering his third season with the Flames and has a solid grasp on the offense under head coach Hugh Freeze.
7 Malik Willis R-JR 6’1″ 215
According to Liberty quarterbacks coach Kent Austin, Willis has shown the most improvement in his ability to recognize coverages and defensive schematics. It has allowed the game to slow down for him. He obviously has all the physical tools to make all the plays with either his legs or his arm, but now he is showing tremendous improvement from the mental aspect which is to be expected as he enters his second season as a starting quarterback.
Quarterbacks Coach Kent Austin – “He’s been really accurate. He’s made great decisions. We track decision making and execution. We grade every single play in practice for every single quarterback. We want to be over 90% in both and Malik has been over 90% in his execution and his decision making has been hovering around 90-91%. If he keeps that up, we’re in pretty good shape.”
11 Johnathan Bennett R-FR 6’1″ 225
Austin said earlier in camp that Bennett is the no question No. 2 quarterback right now. That should come as no surprise as he has seen some limited playing time on the field and is entering his third season with the team. That gives him a huge leg up on the other talented youngsters in the room. With a dual-threat quarterback ahead of him like Malik, the chances of there being an injury is increased. So, the backup quarterback must remain on heightened alert. Bennett understands the offense, and, if needed, he will be given the first option at stepping in for Willis on the field.
Quarterbacks Coach Kent Austin – “JB is definitely further ahead in his understanding of the offense and making great decisions. He has improved a lot as a passer. He doesn’t spray the ball around as much. He’s making a lot more accurate throws. JB works really hard at his fundamentals. The understanding aspect, the mental aspect, comes a lot easier for Johnathan than most quarterbacks. He’s really bright. He can absorb a lot of information over a very short period of time, but if you can’t complete the football, it doesn’t matter your understanding of the offense. He needed to improve as a passer and he has, and I think that’s what has set him apart right now in the number two position.”
10 Nate Hampton FR 6’6″ 230
9 Sean Brown FR 6’1″ 180
13 Will Bowers R-FR 6’1″ 190
18 Kaidon Salter FR 6’1″ 195
Behind Willis and Bennett there are a lot of unknowns. Hampton has been getting the third string reps in most of the practices that have been open to the media. Coach Austin mentioned that most of the other quarterbacks behind Willis and Bennett are still focusing on learning the offense.
Salter is a unique story in this discussion. He’s the highest rated quarterback out of high school Liberty has ever had on its roster, Willis included. The Flames are taking things slow with the Tennessee transfer for now, and understandably so, but whenever it is that Willis has moved on, Salter will certainly have his name heard in the competition as the next starter.
Quarterbacks Coach Kent Austin – “Physically, Kaidon, like most quarterbacks, he had quite a few fundamental flaws, both lower and upper body. He’s really talented. He’s got a real live arm. He’s naturally accurate. He’s twitchy. He can run. He’s got great vision. He has all the ability that he needs. We’re coaching him pretty hard fundamentally right now, particularly lower body and making sure that his three-quarter delivery is removed. Very similar to Malik when we got Malik.”