Titans patient as QB Malik Willis makes jump from Liberty

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Malik Willis is experiencing some growing pains as the Tennessee Titans rookie works through his first training camp.

Willis threw a deep pass to Josh Malone for a nice connection Friday and came back by finding Mason Kinsey across the middle in coverage. Needing a touchdown to wrap up practice, Willis completed two of his first three passes before running and sliding down around the 10.

Then the rookie overthrew Reggie Roberson Jr. at the back of the end zone before being sacked on a corner blitz by Michael Griffin II as time expired.

That’s OK. The Titans can be patient with Willis because Ryan Tannehill is their starter.

“It really is one day at a time. It really is,” Titans quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara said. “And that’s OK. And he’s been great.”

The Titans took the 6-foot-1, 219-pound Willis with the 86th pick overall out of Liberty, trading up to make him the highest-drafted quarterback by the franchise since taking Marcus Mariota at No. 2 overall in 2016. Willis threw for 2,857 yards and 27 touchdowns last season with 12 interceptions and ran for 13 TDs. For his career, he had 48 TD passes and 29 rushing.

Mariota had to start immediately.

Not only does Tennessee have Tannehill going into his 11th season, Logan Woodside has been his backup the past couple seasons. The challenge is whether Willis can progress fast enough to challenge Logan Woodside for the job backing up Tannehill. On Thursday, Willis ran the two-minute offense right after Tannehill.

Willis says he felt light years away from where he was at Tennessee’s rookie minicamp in mid-May to just the start of training camp a couple weeks ago. He’s processing faster what he needs to be doing on each play and feels much more comfortable running the huddle and at the line of scrimmage.

“My coach is making it real easy to just focus on what I need to focus on and let me go out there and play and have fun,” Willis said.

He’s also learning that fine line that a wide receiver that might appear covered well in college can make the catch in the NFL. Willis has the strong arm, but timing is everything.

“I feel like it’s more when you have to throw that ball. and arm strength is not always going to save you because that waiting half a second later, it might be a PBU instead of a completion,” Willis said.

O’Hara got to spend a lot of time with Willis before the April draft. He believed Willis would be able to grasp information quickly and retain all he learned.

But he has been impressed at just how “super smart” the quarterback is in dealing with the pressure of going from the college game to the NFL, where even the hash marks are different.

“His decision-making, which we monitor, has been very good for a rookie,” O’Hara said.

“And things that he hasn’t had to do before relative to working from the pocket, his feet need to catch up with his mind. And it’s getting better. It takes time. Malik has a very strong arm and a really cool skill set. But you can’t always rely on that all the time.”

That means getting Willis to remember the NFL has lots of rules to protect quarterbacks who stay in the pocket compared to only protection for the head and neck area when running outside.

“Operating outside the pocket is not a problem for Malik,” O’Hara said.


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Teresa M. Walker
Teresa M. Walker
Sportswriter covering NFL, NHL, NBA, all of TN