NFL Super Bowl – MOBILE, ALABAMA: I fell hard for Liberty quarterback Malik Willis the moment he sat down for his media availability on Wednesday.
“Good morning,” he said to the press pool, on a very early morning after (for most of us) an exceedingly late night.
A smattering of us grunted in response.
“What, nobody says good morning anymore?” Willis replied with a smile. “They just stare at you?”
This old schoolteacher instantly recognized Willis’ management talent: the confidence to command a room, but in a good-humored way that most people respond well too.
The rest of Willis’ presser was similar: ask a silly question, get a mild deadpan rebuke. Willis was not rude or evasive, mind you: He followed his quips with responses which were much more thoughtful than the questions. But the message was clear: try a little harder.
Hey Malik: what distinguishes you from the other quarterbacks in this class?
“Well, we have different names…”
You talked to Mike Tomlin on the field yesterday. What do you know about the Steelers?
“I know they’re in Pittsburgh…”
Willis sounds more like Jim Harbaugh in his coaching prime at the podium than any happy-to-be-here small-school prospect.
I came to the Reese’s Senior Bowl seeking separation among this year’s lukewarm crop of quarterbacks. Scouts, coaches, and execs no doubt came down here with the same goal. But for most of this soggy week, the top prospects of the 2022 quarterback class (most of whom are here) have looked frustratingly ordinary and/or inconsistent.
Willis has certainly been inconsistent, with passes that sail wide of their targets and a few sputtering full-squad series. But he has hardly been ordinary. His arm strength stands far out from the pack. And while he will require a longer on-ramp than some SEC product, Willis may also be more ready for NFL-level decision-making than expected.
“Shoot, he handled our playbook pretty dang good yesterday,” Lions coach Dan Campbell after his staff worked with Willis for just one full practice on Wednesday. “We had a couple of run checks in there. Defensively, we had a couple of pressure looks that I thought he handled. So he did a good job.”
Willis responded to one of our boilerplate questions by saying that he patterns elements of his game after Russell Wilson (deep passing and touch), Aaron Rodgers (“crazy” arm angles, mobility to keep plays alive without taking off), and Matt Ryan (anticipation). But he also revealed that he doesn’t watch much NFL action on Sundays. Instead, he watches film, where he’s usually watching defenses, not fellow quarterbacks.
What’s Willis looking for? “How different teams in the league play their coverages: this team’s a pass-along-and-go team, this team’s a carry team, this could be a Cover-3 team and this could be a Cover-3 team, but they could play it totally different.”
Every quarterback prospect will tell you how much film he watches. Willis sounds like a prospect who really knows what he’s watching.
The 2022 draft class now has a clear QB1 in Willis. As reported earlier in the week, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett is the safe choice. But quarterback-needy teams near the top of the draft board—the Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, and even Campbell’s Lions—are going to have visions of Josh Allen dancing in their heads. Willis may need a Trey Lance-like redshirt year, but that’s what Ryan and Jared Goff are for. (I tried to type “Sam Darnold” into that last sentence and my fingers seized up.)
Willis is not a top-10 talent, but quarterbacks don’t have to be. He can throw hard, run well, digest the playbook, and command a little respect: four skills that are always in short supply and desperate demand.
(A quick plug: Football Outsiders’ 2022 NFL draft coverage is presented by Underdog Fantasy.)
Northern Iowa offensive tackle Trevor Penning wasn’t going to let a little thing like his team’s 2020 schedule getting postponed stand between him and either self-improvement or his NFL dream.
When the first wave of the COVID pandemic shut down FCS-level football programs (and much of the world) indefinitely in 2020, Penning and his brother Jared set out to build a home gym in their family garage. Anyone who tried to find exercise equipment in the spring of 2020—when lots of us had the same idea about how to while away some of the hours of quarantine—knows that stocking a home gym worthy of two offensive linemen was no easy task.
“It was really hard to find weights, barbells, a squat rack,” Penning said on Wednesday. “We had to go all over Iowa just to find the stuff.”
The brothers drove to locations as far as two hours away to purchase about 650 pounds of weights and equipment. They even purchased some of the weights from an unidentified individual selling them in the parking lot of a church. Then the Pennings drove home, backed Travis’ truck into the garage, and unloaded the gear, and they repeated the process until they had a functional workout facility directly beneath their mother’s bedroom. “We probably woke her up a couple of times,” Penning said.
The brothers lifted, worked on their offensive line techniques, and played 1-on-1 basketball in the driveway for conditioning. They attended Zoom conferences with Northern Iowa coaches three times per week to watch film and go over their workout regimen. “It was like we were really at spring ball a lot of times, just without the pads,” Penning said.
Penning believes that he emerged from his makeshift gymnasium a much better player. “We got so much stronger during that time. We didn’t have an option. Some guys just wanted to maintain, but that wasn’t us.”
A truncated version of Northern Iowa’s 2020 season ended up taking place in the spring of 2021. After a short summer break, it was time for the regularly-scheduled 2021 season to begin. Penning did not find the back-to-back seasons too grueling. “I played six games. Six plus 12 is 18. That’s about an NFL season. I thought of it that way. It wasn’t too bad. But there were a couple of days during our summer lifting where I thought, ‘shoot, I have to go out there and play more.'”
Penning has impressed in early Senior Bowl practices. Soft-spoken off the field, he’s an alley brawler on it: Walkthrough majordomo Matt Noskow saw Penning get into a few scraps with defenders with his nasty finishes in pit drills. Penning is getting some first-round buzz and is a candidate to crack the FO Forty, the centerpiece of Football Outsiders’ draft coverage which will debut in a few weeks. Meanwhile, his brother Jared is likely to replace him at left tackle for the Panthers.
With life back to (relative) normal, the Penning family garage is a garage again. And all that weight equipment? “It’s all in my grandma’s chicken coop,” Penning said.
Senior Bowl Notebook
It rained hammers and nails all day on Wednesday. I couldn’t even tweet for most of practice because the raindrops would push random buttons on my phone, turning “Nice catch by Calvin Austin” into “Ni%e dca5tch b;y Ca…” before my Twitter app closed and the Stitcher app opened. My team rosters melted sometime before the end of the first practice. Yet, experienced and savvy draft analyst that I am, I still have notes:
- Oklahoma defensive lineman Perrion Winfrey was dominant for the second consecutive day, stripping Arizona State running back Rachaad White on one play and camping out in the backfield on several others. Winfrey has had the best two days of practice I have seen from a Senior Bowl defender since Aaron Donald.
- At some point in the next few weeks, I will write at length about Nevada quarterback Carson Strong’s alleged arm cannon. Strong tried his best to showcase his arm in the rain, and the result was a few 90-mph fastballs behind or over the heads of his receivers. After watching two days of practice and a bunch of film, Walkthrough is convinced Strong has a B-grade NFL arm that is being talked up as an A+++ arm by folks who equate throwing deep often with throwing deep effectively.
- Memphis wide receiver Calvin Austin made the best catch of the Lions-coached squad’s practice on Wednesday: he got open on a sweet poco route and hauled in a Sam Howell teardrop during the deluge. Austin later got open and made a fine catch for Malik Willis. Austin looks physically like another Kenneth Gainwell or Antonio Gibson, though he’s a pure slot receiver, not a running back. There’s a little Washington (my fingers are trying to seize up while typing again) Commanders receiver Curtis Samuel to his game.
- It has been a rough week for wide receivers: unfamiliar quarterbacks on Day 1, playing inside a car wash on Day 2. There is not likely to be a first rounder in this bunch, but it’s hard to tell who is even going to move into the second-/third-round conversation. North Dakota State’s Christian Watson is a tall drink of water who extends his arms well to snatch contested balls, but he has not gotten much separation. Meanwhile, Rutgers’ Bo Melton has done everything well (nifty releases, tight cuts, impressive burst) except catch the football.
- Walkthrough has only had half an eye on pit drills for most of the week, but Boston College interior offensive lineman Zion Johnson has earned a ton of buzz, and we did see him stonewall a few defenders during full-squad drills. Johnson has reportedly looked great at center all week and may end up being the second player at that position off the board after Iowa’s Tyler Lindebraum in April’s draft.
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder on the quarterbacks he models his game after: “Deshaun Watson, because of his decision-making and athletic abilities. And Ryan Tannehill, one because of his longevity, and two because of his game management, and he’s also a great player.”
Ridder was clearly referring to Watson’s on-field decision-making, smarty-pants. But this has been a strange Senior Bowl for quarterback role models. Carson Strong says he patterns his game off Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. Setting aside the fact that both of those players were long gone by the time Strong grew into young adulthood, how on earth does a quarterback model his game on both Favre AND Peyton simultaneously? It would be like Walkthrough trying to pattern our writing style on both Bill Bryson and Hunter S. Thompson.
Which, come to think of it…