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VOL. 46 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 12, 2022

Let’s hope we don’t have to see Willis play this season

Rookie QBs are fun to talk about, hard to watch

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It might be fun to watch quarterback Malik Willis in preseason games this year, but a regular-season appearance would like mean the team has had multiple disasters at the position. Willis, who played at Liberty University, was the Titans’ second pick in the third round of the 2022 draft.

-- Photo By Mark Humphrey | Ap

When you get something new, it’s human nature to give it special attention and hold it in high regard. It doesn’t matter whether it is a new house, a new car, a new phone or, in the case of Tennessee Titans fans, a new quarterback.

One of the hot topics among Titans fans is rookie quarterback Malik Willis, who has been one of the team’s most-talked-about rookies, even though he likely will be the one who plays the fewest snaps in 2022.

But when something is new – and given Titans fans’ lingering dissatisfaction with Ryan Tannehill’s recent playoff performance – it is going to gather plenty of attention.

Willis, the third-round pick from Liberty, is the team’s No. 3 quarterback, waiting his turn behind Tannehill and, it would appear from training camp, is nowhere close to unseating Logan Woodside as QB2.

That’s says less about Willis’ talent, than the fact that rookie quarterbacks are rarely ready to step in and play well in the NFL. For example:

• Trevor Lawrence, considered the top prospect in several years, flopped last season as a rookie in Jacksonville (with a big assist from Urban Meyer).

• Patrick Mahomes sat behind Alex Smith as a rookie.

• Aaron Rodgers sat for three years in Green Bay.

• Peyton Manning led the league in interceptions when thrown into the fire in Indianapolis.

There have been a few exceptions to the rule, but rookie quarterbacks usually sit and learn or play and get humbled.

It takes time to learn how different the NFL is from college. The passing windows in the pro game are much smaller than in college, and learning to trust your own judgment is just as important as learning to trust your receivers.

“He’s so physically gifted, and I think sometimes when you have those tools, you can get away with things at the collegiate level,” Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing says. “And I think he’s starting to find out that some of those tight window throws, or if you’re a little bit late on something, you can’t just necessarily make up for it with ball speed. The DBs are going to close that window a little bit faster.

“There’s a development there. There’s a dependency on physical tools that sometimes needs to progress to more of the footwork, and listening to your feet, and letting your feet redirect your eyes and those types of things.”

So it’s smart on many levels for the Titans to be patient with Willis. First, the window of winning that is open right now in Tennessee runs through Derrick Henry and Tannehill with the play-action passing game.

If and when the time comes for Willis to be the starting quarterback, that window will likely have closed, and the Titans will be hoping the young signal-caller can open a new window of his own with his dual-threat style of quarterback play.

In the meantime, the most important thing for Willis is to be a student of the game – learn what to do and what not to do while minimizing the mistakes that will come in practice and preseason.

The biggest issue for Willis to work through in camp has been timing. It has gradually gotten better, but there are still throws that must leave his hand earlier. There are decisions that need to be processed faster. Those things can come, but they don’t happen overnight.

“(We’re) just continuing to talk about his timing, that’s been the message. That’s something that we talked about, I talked about, that (quarterbacks coach) Pat (O’Hara) and Todd have been trying to preach to him,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel says of Willis. “It’s just making sure that the timing improves because you only have a certain amount of time to get the pass off and then the distribution of the route and everything ties into that.”

There’s also a tendency for Willis to abandon his reads in the passing game and run – something he also has improved upon since camp has begun.

“I don’t want to sit there and have him throw interceptions. I want him to work through his progressions and make the correct decision,” Vrabel says. “If we evaluate the tape and it looks like he had one of his first two progressions or reads, we’d certainly want the ball to go there. But if not then that’s what you have to do, is you have to progress through.

“And sometimes (a) guy’s progression is being able to extend plays outside the pocket and being smart with the football, keeping your eyes downfield, making great decisions and then protecting the football and yourself, as well.”

Willis, to his credit, knows he is a work in progress and gets that it will take hard work and time to get to where he and the Titans want him to be. An area of emphasis lately, as Downing mentioned, has been improving the footwork in the pocket to help him get rid of the football faster and more efficiently.

“I’m processing information and knowing what I need to do, but in order to be on time and be able to do it with anticipation, I need to help my feet get up with my processing ability,” Willis says. “It’s knowing what to do, but to be able to get reps so you can do it without thinking.”

At Liberty, Willis rarely operated a huddle or took a snap under center. Those things – and plenty of other nuances of the position – have to be part of an NFL quarterback’s regimen.

“He’s learning a totally new offense. He’s throwing to new players from a timing and decision-making standpoint, calling the play in the huddle, taking command of the huddle when he’s in there, whoever’s in the huddle with him, showing that leadership,” says Titans general manager Jon Robinson, who drafted Willis 86th overall this year.

“I thought that he put the ball where it was supposed to be most of the time during the spring. There were some timing things that he’s got to continue to try to improve on.”

Willis is showing to be a willing and eager learner.

“It’s football at the end of the day. It’s just how willing are you to work at it and understand the terminology and new concepts,” he says. “It’s just repetition. It’s doing it again and again and again. The more comfortable you can be in anything you do. The first time you brushed your teeth, now you brush them without even thinking about it.”

Downing says he knows that Willis is a long way from being a polished product ready to lead an NFL offense in the regular season, but he likes the possibilities that Willis brings to the table.

“Malik is on a good trajectory. He’s had some learning experiences out there, but he’s a great kid with high character who comes in and wants to know the why,” Downing says. “He wants to understand what occurred with the mistake, and then he generally makes a new one. I’m excited about where he’s at.”

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com, a part of Main Street Media.

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