Projected NFL first-round pick Malik Willis credits former CFL coach Kent Austin for ‘growth’ as a quarterback

Coming off his sophomore season at Auburn University, Malik Willis thought his dreams of being an NFL quarterback were over. Used only in a specialty running role for the Tigers, he transferred to little heralded Liberty University with low expectations.

“I thought I was done,” the projected first-round draft pick admitted from his podium at the NFL Scouting Combine this week. “I thought I was just gonna go have fun and play out my last two or three years, but we’re here now so I’m happy.”

In the three years since he arrived in Lynchburg, Virginia, Willis has helped put the Flames on the college football map. Since he came in to the school in conjunction with head coach Hugh Freeze, Liberty he transformed from FBS newcomer into a Top 25 ranked program and three-time Bowl winner, twice with the dynamic dual-threat under centre.

Posting a 17-6 record as starter, Willis has thrown for 5,107 yards, 47 touchdowns and 18 interceptions during his tenure with the Flames, while rushing for another 1,822 and 27 scores along the ground. Much of that success can be credited to a third person who arrived in Virginia back in 2019: former Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach Kent Austin.

The legendary CFL coach and quarterback has been Willis’ quarterback coach and co-offensive coordinator throughout his dramatic rise to prominence, helping him become a prospect worthy of NFL interest.

“Oh yeah, that’s my guy. He helped me mature and he helped me just grow into the player I am today. All the information that I’ve retained, most of it came from him and Coach Freeze,” Willis raved on Wednesday. “Coach Austin is just a very intelligent dude and has a lot of knowledge that he can pass along, so I’m really appreciate of everything he’s done for me.”

A product of Ole Miss, Austin first arrived in the CFL back in 1987 and would go on to play ten seasons at quarterback for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, B.C. Lions, Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He threw for 36,030 yards, 198 touchdowns and 191 interceptions while winning two Grey Cups as a player.

Austin began his coaching career as quarterbacks coach of the defunct Ottawa Renegades in 2003, rising to become offensive coordinator of the Toronto Argonauts and later win a Grey Cup in 2007 in his lone season as head coach of the Roughriders. He returned to the CFL in 2013, spending five seasons as head coach in Hamilton before resigning to take a consulting role.

In years past, a six-foot-one, 225-pound dual-threat quarterback from a small school like Willis may have needed to follow his mentor’s footsteps north of the border to find success. Instead, Austin has molded one of the top prospects in the 2022 NFL Draft and the passer with the highest ceiling in a weak quarterback class.

There is currently no consensus top pivot entering the Scouting Combine, but Willis’ raw athleticism makes him a wildcard capable of rocketing up draft boards. Accuracy, decision-making and level of competition are the knocks on Austin’s protegee, but the same was once said about NFL stars like Josh Allen.

“Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Informed, not informed, it is what it is. Everybody can have one,” Willis said.

“Somebody’s always gonna think you’re trash. That’s just the way the game goes and it is what it is. I’m gonna just keep on going. I’m not playing for their approval. I’m playing for the only one approval that I respect, God. I’m playing for an audience of one and I don’t really care too much about what he and she says.”

That may be yet another thing he’s gained from Austin. As anyone who interviewed the gruff coach in Canada will tell you, he never did care much for outside opinions.

Abbott is a UBC student, youth coach and lifelong CFL fanatic. He specializes in coverage of the CFL draft and the league's global initiative.