MOBILE, Ala. — When Malik Willis was growing up in Atlanta, he sought the counsel of another quarterback. He was older, and much larger, but they went to the same high school, and seeing his mentor make it to the NFL and eventually the Super Bowl made an impression.
"It was cool," Willis said of growing up near the hometown of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. "It was definitely cool. He went to the Super Bowl and he's like from 15 minutes from where I live, so that's cool."
But Willis wasn't just a star-struck fan, he was a talented player in his own right. So as he got to Westlake High School and played for Newton's 7-on-7 team, he got advice from the man who was in the place he wanted to eventually be.
"He always gave me little nuggets of information that I could keep with me for the rest of my life," Willis said. "He's definitely been a big part of that."
True to Newton's nature, only part of those lessons were about football. Willis said Newton's message was as much about personal development and responsibility, and making sure they had done enough to prepare themselves for the next challenge, because there's always a next challenge.
"I mean, more than anything, he was telling us about stuff off the field, being careful in whatever we do," Willis said. "And taking advantage of what we have, and using your work ethic for your best advantage. Trying to get where you're trying to go, and understand you can't do what everybody else is doing if you're trying to get where they're not. Just focusing on those things, more than anything.
"When we were on the 7-on-7 team, he'd tell us about that competition we're going against, that's 10 percent of what you're working against when you're working out, doing extra work. You're going against him one day a week; you're going against everybody else all the other days of the week."
Willis internalized those lessons, and even followed Newton's path to Auburn for a few years, before transferring to Liberty and becoming the kind of quarterback who could also be a high first-round pick.
This week, he's impressing scouts at the Senior Bowl, a significant step up in terms of competition for him, but one he doesn't look out of place taking.
He easily has the strongest arm of the six quarterbacks here, even if he's not always the most accurate. During Wednesday's practice, when Pitt's Kenny Pickett appeared to struggle in the rainy conditions, Willis zipped the ball across the field sharply.
And while most of the quarterbacks here are on the smaller side — 6-foot-5 pocket quarterbacks are rare these days, in part because of the way college offenses have changed — the 6-foot-even Willis is solidly built.
One evaluator noted that seeing Willis up close allows you to realize how strong he actually is — he weighed in this week at 220 pounds.
Lions coach Dan Campbell was also impressed with his stature, and said prior to Wednesday's practice that Willis had picked things up quickly.
"I think he throws a nice ball," Campbell said. "He's pretty athletic, he's built, better than ... from afar you don't know. That's why being able to see these guys up close, he's a good-looking player, man. He's built right. He looks like he's built to last.
"Shoot, he handled our playbook pretty dang good yesterday. We had a couple of run-checks in there, and defensively, we had a couple of pressure looks too that I thought he handled."
There are things Willis knows he's going to have to get much better at, beginning with receiving the ball from the center. Having played almost exclusively from the shotgun, the simple act of taking a snap is a new experience.
"Definitely just my footwork, doing all this under center stuff," he said. "We got a couple of plays from the gun where I feel more comfortable. Just getting more comfortable under center, and getting out of there so I don't get stepped on by anybody. It's just a different thing I've never done before, so it's showing you can adapt and how quickly you can learn."
After a couple of years of not playing at Auburn, he appeared to learn quickly how to put up big numbers.
He threw for 5,107 yards and 47 touchdowns in two years at Liberty, and ran for another 1,822 yards and 27 touchdowns. And while that was at a lower level of competition, it was one he doesn't feel the need to apologize for now.
"I mean, I guess so for y'all," he replied when asked about the challenge of being from a smaller school. "We all, even the big school and little school guys talk, football's football, you've got to come out and play. Y'all do us dirty because we're a little small school, but football's football. They work out every day, we work out every day. Our schedules when I was at Auburn and Liberty are pretty much the same. Y'all focus on that a little too much, in my opinion. It's just more people at the game."
Willis has an easy sense of humor when interacting with reporters. When he sat at a podium for a breakfast interview Wednesday, a beat of awkward silence while they put their recorders on the table gave him an opening.
"Good morning," he said with a grin. "Nobody says good morning anymore. Everybody's just staring at each other."
Later in the session, he was asked what separates him from the other quarterbacks here.
"I have a different name, one," he replied to laughter.
Asked what he knew about the Steelers after he had a brief sideline conversation with Mike Tomlin, he said: "I know they're in Pittsburgh, one. He's a pretty cool dude, it seems like. That was my first time meeting him, ever. But we were just chopping it up."
That kind of smooth delivery also comes through on the field. His ability to run is obvious, but sometimes in draft evaluations that becomes almost a negative, as if he's choosing to run rather than staying back and doing the harder thing.
"Like I always say, I try to take what the defense gives us," Willis said. "If somebody's in the backfield with me, I probably shouldn't stay in the pocket. But if it's a clean pocket, I can probably stay in the pocket. I try not to have a set thing in my mind where, 'OK I'm going to run this play, or OK I'm going to throw this play from the pocket.' I kind of just try to play the game of football."
He admitted he didn't watch many NFL games the way fans do, but would try to focus on the way defenses played, to pick up small nuances about coverage.
He admitted his admiration for a number of quarterbacks, picking out specific qualities he wanted to bring to his own game.
"Russell Wilson, his deep ball, his touch on those passes, I mean that's a really cool thing I always looked up to," Willis said. "Aaron Rodgers, his crazy arm angles and just his mobility and keeping the play alive without having to run for a lot of yards. And Matt Ryan's anticipation, I just try to focus on little aspects that can help me in my game."
He also asked the group of reporters if they could get him in touch with the recently retired Tom Brady.
"Just to talk about ball and get in his brain, for real," Willis said. "There's no way you can play that long without having everything you need, cerebrally, and I just want to be that way."
But as much as he wants to get inside Brady's head, he doesn't appear to be inside his own. At least in talking about football, and his journey, he gives no indication of making things harder than they have to be.
"I try not to overthink a lot of stuff," he said. "Life's hard enough as it is."
There are times, however, when Willis makes it look easy on the field. There was another kid from Westlake who used to be like that, one who helped Willis along the way.
View practice photos of college prospects during Wednesday's rainy practice at the Senior Bowl.