AUBURN — The writing was on the wall as soon as Gus Malzahn announced Auburn will focus its 2019 quarterback competition on redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and true freshman Bo Nix.
Malik Willis, a junior who once was thought to be the heir apparent to the job vacated by Jarrett Stidham, plans to enter his name into the NCAA's transfer portal, multiple sources confirmed to the Montgomery Advertiser on Thursday.
That fact alone does not guarantee Willis' departure from the program — players have the right to explore their options but not leave — but given that he has only two seasons of eligibility remaining and is looking at a No. 3 spot on the depth chart behind two players younger than he is, it seems likely that his time with the Tigers will end after two seasons.
Willis appeared in 15 games between 2017 and 2018, completing 11 of 14 passes for 69 yards and one touchdown to go along with 309 rushing yards and two more scores on 15 carries.
Willis came to Auburn with high expectations despite being a three-star athlete in the Class of 2017. He didn't start playing quarterback until his senior season at Roswell (Ga.) High School, and during that campaign he passed for 2,562 yards, rush for 1,033 more and total 37 touchdowns for the Class 7A state runner-up.
Head coach Gus Malzahn said the 6-foot-1, 193-pound dual-threat prospect "reminds me a little bit of Nick Marshall," and Willis looked the part when he rushed for a 67-yard touchdown against Mississippi State in just his second career game in 2017.
Had Stidham decided to enter the NFL Draft following that season rather than returning for the 2018 campaign, Willis likely would have started in his place.
But Stidham did return, and a less-potent Auburn offense led to fewer blowout victories and, in turn, fewer opportunities for Willis to get on the field. He struggled when those opportunities did come, too, most notably when the wrong read on a run play led to him getting sacked in the end zone for a safety in a Week 2 drubbing of FCS Alabama State.
"I think there were times where that was very frustrating for Malik," Sean McEvoy, Willis' private quarterback coach, told the Montgomery Advertiser in March. "It’s really hard to have to be judged on such a small sample size.
"When you know that you might only get 10 to 12 running plays the entire year, when you feel like you’ve got to make the most of every one of those opportunities, in certainly maybe adds a little bit more pressure than necessary in those situations, and he maybe tried to do too much."
Willis and the rest of Auburn's quarterbacks were given a clean slate in a four-man competition this spring, but it was Gatewood and Nix who separated themselves above the rest. Those two freshmen received the significant first-team reps in the first half of the team's A-Day spring game in April, while Willis led the second-team offense (he completed 7 of 8 passes for 63 yards, with most of those coming on a 41-yard touchdown).
Malzahn announced May 1 that the competition had been narrowed down to Gatewood and Nix, citing his desire to let those quarterbacks get the bulk of the reps and establish themselves as leaders as the reasons why.
"You be honest with your players," Malzahn said. "When everything is all said and done after spring, (Willis is) a competitor and he wants to keep improving and keep getting better.”
It appears that Willis will do that a different university, but Auburn should continue to have good depth at quarterback even without him — redshirt freshman Cord Sandberg will move up to the No. 3 role behind Gatewood and Nix, and the Tigers have a commitment from three-star 2020 quarterback Chayil Garnett out of Lake Wales, Fla.