NFL quarterback prospect Malik Willis brings ‘once in a lifetime’ pro day to Liberty

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Ralph Wilson, better known as “Chopper” at the Ninth Street Parlour, just finished shaving and cutting Liberty University football coach Hugh Freeze’s hair. The 56-year-old hairstylist wanted the coach to look particularly handsome because what he insisted was the biggest day this town, best known as the home of TV evangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., has seen of its living.

Maybe never.

“It’s going to explode,” Chopper said late Monday afternoon. “MAAA-an, this is going to explode!”

Chopper was talking about pro day at Liberty University, which until Tuesday barely caught the eye on the NFL’s radar. Instead of the typical 8-10 scouts, barely enough to perform the wide assortment of drills, 120 NFL coaches, scouts and front office staff will be on campus.

Instead of having one or two players hoping to be a late pick or an undrafted pick, 19 will be exposed.

All 32 NFL teams will be represented, but some more than others. The Carolina Panthers, who have the No. 6 overall pick and are looking for a quarterback, will be strong with general manager Scott Fitterer, head coach Matt Rhule, offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, coach quarterbacks Sean Ryan and others, just as they were Monday in Pittsburgh for quarterback Kenny Pickett.

ESPN and NFL Network will broadcast live from the campus bounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains.

They’re all here because of one player: senior quarterback Malik Willis, whose unparalleled talent in these games has put Liberty on the NFL map in a way few, if any, ever would. conceived.

Even the city manager called to offer help.

“I don’t think I can quantify [what this day means]” Freeze said. “I just know it’s huge.”

“It’s monumental”

The school spent weeks preparing for Professional Day, an event it barely invested a few days in the past. Chopper, who half-jokingly claims he looks like a combination of Magic Johnson and George Foreman, says that’s all people in the living room have been talking about since it became clear Willis could be a pick. first round – possibly the top 10 – in the April Draft.

It reminds Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw of when Robert Griffin III (the No. 2 overall pick in 2012) had his pro day at Baylor when McCaw was the AD there. He called it the turning point of this program because of the exposure.

McCaw said Tuesday was even more important to Liberty, calling it a “once in a lifetime event,” like the Super Bowl in that sleepy James River town.

Griffin, now an analyst for ESPN, agreed. He recalled that Baylor was in a major conference and had a football history that Liberty does not have as an FBS independent.

RGIII never even heard of Liberty until McCaw came here in 2016, and even then he didn’t pay much attention until Willis arrived in 2019 as a transfer from Auburn.

“I thought Liberty was just handwriting on the Statue of Liberty,” Griffin said with a laugh. “We all know more because of Malik Willis. Now the whole NFL community, the whole world is going to find out. ”

Liberty Football Liaison Javon Hubbard hopes so. He oversaw the preparation of the facilities and planned every detail for the arrival of this “who’s who” group of the league.

Liberty has had only one first-round pick in its history – tight end Eric Green, 21st overall at Pittsburgh in 1990. Since then, no player has been picked higher than the fourth round, and only three players have been drafted during that time.

Fortunately for Hubbard, the facilities rival those of most major football programs, starting with a state-of-the-art indoor facility, where most of the drills took place. So this part was not difficult.

The rest was like drawing up a plan for a new house. He grew from a few members of the football staff and communications department organizing the event to the entire sports department at his disposal.

Everything is on deck. All other football-related activities for the day have been canceled, even though the team is in the midst of spring training.

Everyone wants to send the message to those who have never been to campus that the brand of football and the facilities here are better than perceived nationally.

That, in turn, could help convince more players with Willis’ talent to choose Liberty.

“It’s monumental,” Hubbard said.

Perspective

In his barbershop, Chopper vividly remembers the time Coach Freeze sat in his leather chair in 2019 and talked about a kid he was bringing in who had only attempted 14 passes in 15 games at Auburn. He remembered Freeze saying the kid didn’t know how good he was.

But Freeze told him that day that the kid was special and that he would change Liberty’s schedule.

It was obvious on Tuesday.

“This is an unprecedented brand-building opportunity,” McCaw said.

In some ways, Freeze says Tuesday is bigger than his 2016 class at Ole Miss which featured three players – tackle Laremy Tunsil (No. 13), receiver Laquon Treadwell (23) and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (29) – enter the first round.

That’s because early rounds, or even big storylines, were nothing new to Ole Miss. In 2009, the story of left tackle Michael Oher, selected No. 23 by Baltimore two years earlier, became a Hollywood hit in the movie “The Blind.” Side.”’

But Willis, because of the exposure he brings, brings exposure to many other players who might have been overlooked had he not become a star.

“I took a picture [on Monday]not just with Malik but with all the other guys – some I think are going to surprise some people and have a chance to get on the rosters and do well,” Freeze said.

Griffin, who mentored Willis at the NFL combine last month, said that was the mindset he had in 2012. As the second overall pick of Washington commanders this that year, Griffin said he attended Baylor’s pro day to help other people’s stock, not himself.

“Malik does it for the same reason,” Griffin said. “He wants to spotlight all the other Liberty players, to show the NFL teams that they have talent there.

“It means a lot because it shows me he understands.”

Far-reaching impact

Between spring training and preparing for the pro day, Freeze has had little time to unwind the past month. Chopper took care of it for about an hour and a half in his barber chair.

“He was just snoring,” he said.

Tuesday was wide open, starting with check-ins at 9 a.m. and weight room testing at 10 a.m.

The schedule calls for Willis, who led Liberty to a 17-6 record while passing for 5,107 yards and 47 touchdowns in two seasons, not performing until 1 p.m. so as not to steal the show early.

But Willis, considered undersized at 6-foot, 225 pounds, will steal the show on draft day. The Panthers see him as a possibility, as does Pickett.

They are looking for a franchise quarterback after failing to make a trade last week for Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans, who chose the Cleveland Browns over the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Panthers.

The New York Giants (Nos. 5 and 7) and Atlanta Falcons (No. 8) could also be looking to sign a quarterback in the first round. The Seattle Seahawks (No. 9), Commanders (No. 11), Philadelphia Eagles (No. 15, 16 and 19) and Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 20) also have long-term questions at quarterback. -back.

Chopper and his clients try daily to figure out where Willis will land. They can’t wait to celebrate the first round with a “really cold beer” at the other end of the Ninth Street Parlor.

Griffin thinks whoever selects Willis will get a “special talent” that can beat you with his arms and legs, especially when protection goes down. He thinks this team will also get a special someone, recalling that Willis was captured on social media giving a homeless man a shirt from his suitcase while at the combine.

But Tuesday, Griffin noted, was all about what Willis did for Liberty.

“It’s going to do wonders for this university,” he said. “Freedom is going to feel the benefits of Malik Willis for the next 10 years.”

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