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

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).

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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.

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.



Most of the articles covering this rematch lean toward Liberty based on the skill set of Wiiis. It is good to read that SU has some "cats" with offsetting skills! I too look forward to the matchup between Jones and Willis.

Stats don't lie

Willis is a solid QB. He has 11 TDs already!
The matchup with Mikel Jones is going to be great!

They can lie,

if you don’t look at who they’ve played. Not denying he’s a good/great QB, but let’s see what this D does to his NFL hopes.

Willis ain’t Lamar.

He’s honestly more like Dungey –
Big dude, elusive, makes things happen outta broken plays, but isn’t an elite athlete, and has a good, but not amazing arm.

The 3-3-5 should allow us to have a guy with at least equal speed chasing him, rather than a DL.

IF he’s able to run amok, we lose. Period.
IF we can keep him fairly contained, and force him to beat us with his arm, we have an excellent chance to pull off the W.

It will be loud tonight

Much louder than the last game vs Liberty. SU cannot give up the big play early that will quiet the crowd and ring boos in the Dome. TFL’s,
passes defended and short gains have to be common tonight. Sure Liberty will score points but SU’s D will make Liberty work very hard for it.
27-23 SU. SU makes 2 FG’s and 3 TD’s and Liberty Makes 3 FG’s and 2 TD’s.

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