By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - In his first Auburn spring practice, as a mid-year enrollee in 2017, quarterback Malik Willis impressed his coaches and teammates with his rapid development.
The early foundation paid dividends during the season when Willis played in seven games as a true freshman, backing up Jarrett Stidham. In addition to completing 6 of 7 passes, Willis was the Tigers' fifth-leading rusher, with 221 yards.
In Willis, Auburn fans see dual-threat potential a la Nick Marshall.
"I think it's a good part of my game," Willis said Saturday after Auburn's A-Day game. "It's about 50-50. I think I can do both really well. Just have to keep working to get better."
With quarterbacks off limits to contact, the officials' whistle signaled the end of runs that could generate substantially more yardage during the season.
"You never want to hear it, but you've got to," Willis said. "Got to keep everybody safe. Treat it like it's live for me, just keep going."
The 6-1, 202-pound soon-to-be sophomore benefited from working with the No. 1 offense this spring while Stidham recovered from surgery on his non-throwing shoulder.
"It was good," Willis said of his experience with the first team. "It's a difference. You just adapt and get better. It's all good."
It wasn't just the unit Willis was working with. His improvement also accelerated because of the players he competed against.
"Our defense is the best in the country," Willis said. "No doubt in my mind about it. Going against them every day is making everybody better."
One thing Willis learned this spring, he said, was the importance of giving Auburn's receivers opportunities.
"Giving them a chance and trying not to be too perfect," Willis said. "Those 50-50 balls instead of putting it right in a perfect spot, give them a chance to go up and make a play."
Watching Stidham complete 66 percent of his passes last season was instructive for Willis.
"A lot of trajectory stuff, and where to put it on a target, whether it's man or zone, where to put the ball," Willis said. "That's what I learned from him."
This spring, Stidham coached his fellow QB on the art of pre-snap reads.
"I was super proud of Malik all spring," Stidham said. "Obviously, he was thrown in there with the ones, and he handled it just like he should've. It was nice to see him really improve week to week. He took command of the offense and really led those guys. It was really positive to see."
Willis completed 8 of 20 passes on A-Day, leading reporters to ask coach Gus Malzahn if he were concerned.
Malzahn flashed back eight years to Auburn's 2010 A-Day game.
"We had a guy named Cam Newton a few years back. I think he went 3-for-8 in his first spring game and everybody was really concerned. He went on to win the Heisman Trophy," Malzahn said.
"I don't overreact on a spring game. He's had a solid spring. He's going against one of the best defenses in college football and that'll only make him better."
— Jeff Shearer (@jeff_shearer) April 12, 2018
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer