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Syracuse football: Malik Willis vs. Mikel Jones is an under-the-radar battle

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Syracuse’s defensive leader faces his toughest challenge yet via Liberty’s QB

NCAA Football: Albany at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

I’m on the record saying this before, and I’m not afraid to reiterate it.

I don’t think Liberty Flames QB Malik Willis is as good as some think.

The competition he faces is just not at the level of the Power Five. Yes, he had some great games against some decent opponents last season, but against the Syracuse Orange, he stayed relatively quiet. He only threw for 182 yards and only rushed for 70 yards on 12 carries in the Carrier Dome last year. For a player at Willis’ level, those numbers aren’t eye-popping. Though yes, we’ll admit part of the issue was that he didn’t need to do as much with the Flames rushing for 338 yards against SU last year).

NCAA Football: Cure Bowl-Liberty vs Coastal Carolina Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The numbers for Willis this season look great on paper (225 rushing and four TDs, 613 passing and seven TDs through the air), but Syracuse’s defense is much better than those of Campbell, Troy, and Old Dominion. Through the first three games of the season, Tony White’s unit continues to shut down opponents with relative ease. I’ll freely admit that Willis is also better than pretty much everyone that the Orange has played this year, but I think the SU defense is ready to attack him.

The main reason is the man that leads the linebackers corps.: Mikel Jones. Steve and I have talked a lot about how the 3-3-5 defense is designed for the linebackers to shine. We’ve seen that already with Jones, Marlowe Wax, and Stefon Thompson having excellent starts to the season. However, I think Jones will go toe-to-toe against Willis often in this game.

Why’s that? Jones has been played quite a few plays as a QB spy on defense this year, with Wax and Thompson being so good off the edge as the typical NFL-style outside linebacker. And while the competition hasn’t been the highest level, Jones has still been really good at reading exactly when to stay back in coverage and when to bust through the line.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Syracuse at Pitt Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Even if Willis decides to take off and run, I think Jones has enough closing speed to get to the Liberty QB before he gains too many yards. Tackling won’t be a problem with Syracuse’s middle linebacker leading the squad with a 89.3 tackling rating from Pro Football Focus. And we know Jones is competent in coverage with four picks last season.

Given Willis’s pedigree and history, I think White will have Jones in a couple more QB spies to track the Liberty passer (and runner) throughout the game. Many draft boards have Willis as one of the top two quarterbacks for next spring, but Jones is slowly starting to play himself into his own draft conversations as well.

I’m personally looking forward to the matchup, as it could be among the better one-on-one battles we see during a Syracuse game this year.