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

Quarterback Malik Willis has turned the spotlight on Liberty University's football program in a way they've never seen before. AP Photo/Matt Stamey

LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Ralph Wilson, better known as "Chopper'' at the Ninth Street Parlor, just finished giving Liberty University football coach Hugh Freeze a shave and haircut. The 56-year-old barber wanted the coach to look especially good for what he insisted was the biggest day this town, best known as the home of television evangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., has seen in his lifetime.

Maybe ever.

"It's going to blow,'' Chopper said late Monday afternoon. "MAAA-an, it's going to blow!''

Chopper was talking about pro day at Liberty University, which, until Tuesday, barely drew a blip on the NFL radar. Instead of the typical eight to 10 scouts, barely enough to run the wide assortment of drills, 70 NFL coaches, scouts and front office personnel will be on campus.

Instead of having one or two players hopeful of being a late-round pick or an undrafted pickup, 19 will be on display.

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 out in full force with general manager Scott Fitterer, head coach Matt Rhule, offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and others, just as they were on Monday in Pittsburgh for quarterback Kenny Pickett.

ESPN and NFL Network will do live shows from the campus outlined by the Blue Ridge Mountains.

They're will all here because of one player: senior quarterback Malik Willis, whose never-before-seen-talent in these parts has put Liberty on the NFL map in ways few, if any, ever imagined.

Even the city manager has called offering assistance.

"I don't think I can quantify [what this day means],'' Freeze said. "I just know it's huge.''

'This is monumental'

The school has spent weeks preparing for the pro day, an event they 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 it's all people in the parlor have talked about since it became apparent Willis could be a first-round pick -- maybe 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 that the turning point of that program because of the exposure.

McCaw said Tuesday was an even bigger for Liberty, calling it a "once in a lifetime event,'' like the Super Bowl coming to this sleepy town by the James River.

Griffin, now an analyst for ESPN, agreed. He reminded that Baylor was in a major conference and had a football history that Liberty doesn't as an FBS Independent.

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

"I thought Liberty was just some writing on the Statue of Liberty,'' Griffin said with a laugh. "We've all come to know more about it because of Malik Willis. Now the entire NFL community, the entire world is going to know about it.''

Javon Hubbard, the NFL liaison for Liberty football, hopes so. He oversaw preparation of the facilities and planned every detail for the arrival of this "who's who'' group from the league.

Liberty has had only one first-round pick in its history -- tight end Eric Green, 21st overall to Pittsburgh in 1990. Since then, no player has been picked higher than the fourth round, and only three players have been drafted at all 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 were held. So that part wasn't difficult.

The rest has been like drawing up a blueprint for a new house. He's gone from having a few members of the football staff and the communications department putting on the event to having the entire athletic department at his disposal.

It's all hands on deck. All other football-related activities for the day were canceled, even though the team is in the middle of spring practice.

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

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

"This is monumental,'' Hubbard said.


In his barbershop, Chopper remembered vividly when coach Freeze sat in his leather chair in 2019 and talked about a kid he was bringing in who had attempted only 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 the kid was special and would change Liberty's program.

That was apparent on Tuesday.

"It's an unprecedented brand-building opportunity,'' McCaw said.

In some ways, Freeze says Tuesday is bigger than his 2016 class at Ole Miss that had three players -- tackle Laremy Tunsil (No. 13), wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (23) and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (29) -- go in the first round.

That's because first-rounders, or even great stories, weren't new to Ole Miss. In 2009, the story about 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, is bringing exposure to many of the other players who may have been overlooked had he not become a star.

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

Griffin, who was Willis' mentor at the NFL combine last month, said that's the mindset he had in 2012. As the second overall pick by the Washington Commanders that year, Griffin said he participated in Baylor's pro day to help the stock of others, not himself.

"Malik's doing it for the same reason,'' Griffin said. "He wants to shine a light on all the other players at Liberty, to show NFL teams they have talent there.

"That means a lot because it shows me he gets it.''

Far-reaching impact

Between spring practice and preparing for pro day, Freeze had little time to relax the past month. Chopper took care of that for about an hour and a half in his barber's chair.

"He was just snoring,'' he said.

Tuesday was wide open, beginning 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 for 5,107 yards and 47 touchdowns in two seasons, not to perform until 1 p.m. so he didn't steal the spotlight early.

But Willis, considered undersize at 6-foot and 225 pounds, will steal the spotlight on draft day. The Panthers are looking at him as a possibility, just as they are Pickett.

They are searching for a franchise quarterback after failing to make a trade last week for the Houston Texans' Deshaun Watson, 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), also could look to draft a quarterback in the first round. The Seattle Seahawks (No. 9), Commanders (No.11), Philadelphia Eagles (Nos. 15, 16 and 19), and Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 20) also have long-term questions at quarterback.

Chopper and his customers 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 opposite end of the Ninth Street Parlor.

Griffin believes whoever selects Willis will get a "special talent'' who can beat you with his arm and legs, particularly when protection breaks down. He believes that team also will get a special person, reminding that Willis was captured on social media giving a homeless person a shirt from his suitcase while at the combine.

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

"This is going to work wonders for this university,'' he said. "Liberty is going to feel the benefits of Malik Willis for the next 10 years.''