Turron DavenportESPN5 minutes of reading
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It was the last day of OTAs and The Tennessee Titans worked on their red zone offense. Coach Mike Vrabel declared down and distance.
“Third-and-4 from the 5-yard line,” Vrabel yelled.
Sophomore quarterback Malik Willis broke down and scanned the defense. As he went through his cadence, he saw the defense shift.
But that didn’t affect his ability to decipher where he was going with the football.
Willis saw a window of opportunity and delivered a beautiful drop shot in the back corner of the end zone before receiver Mason Kinsey made his break. Kinsey accelerated away from his defender and hauled in the pass.
Vrabel signaled the touchdown and blew the whistle to end practice. It was a perfect way for the Titans to end OTAs and minicamp.
For Willis, there was a fresh aura of comfort and confidence when he checked into St. Thomas Sports Park to start offseason activities.
“It’s definitely different than last year,” Willis added. “I think when you have a whole year of doing something, you just get a little more comfortable doing it.”
This has not gone unnoticed by his teammates.
“He seems a lot more confident in the pinch,” said tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo, also entering his second year. “When he’s calling plays and with his reads, he’s a lot more decisive with the ball.”
Veteran established starter Ryan Tannehill added that Willis has been in command of the offense, throwing the ball accurately and … playing fast.
This version of Willis is a stark contrast from the player who struggled to a 1-2 record through three starts last season. This player was unable to record a 100-yard passing game and had more interceptions (three) than touchdown passes (zero).
But all of these struggles cannot be placed solely on Willis’ shoulders.
The Titans traded up to draft the quarterback out of Liberty in the third round last year, and despite being one of the highest rated at his position in the draft, he was put in the project category — as Tennessee planned to develop him from scratch . But that development process was accelerated when Willis beat out Logan Woodside for the backup quarterback in training camp last year.
Tennessee was confident in Tannehill’s durability because he hadn’t missed a game since becoming the starter midway through the 2019 season, but Willis was forced into action when Tannehill suffered an ankle injury in Week 7 against the Indianapolis Colts that would keep him out of Week 8’s matchup against the Houston Texans.
Despite going through a crash course entering the NFL, Willis refused to make any excuses for his struggles.
“It’s a results-oriented business,” Willis said.
The Titans lost their final seven games of the season — going 1-4 in games Tannehill didn’t start — and missed the playoffs after a Week 18 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars sealed their fate.
New general manager Ran Carthon made an effort to help shore up the quarterback room as Tennessee traded up for the second straight year to take Kentucky quarterback Will Levis with the No. 33 pick.
Despite that, Vrabel noted Willis will be Tannehill’s backup coming into OTAs and minicamp, making Levis third on the depth chart, but stated the two will have to battle for the backup spot.
In Willis’s mind, however, he is competing with none other than the version of himself from the day before. All he wants to do is make overnight improvements, something new Titans quarterbacks coach/passing coordinator Charles London has reiterated.
Willis likes the way the coaches don’t let him get comfortable and push him to be more urgent. For example, Willis seems to thrive when things go off schedule and he can freelance rather than stay within the structure of the play.
The coaches challenged Willis to execute every play within the scheme. As the play calls for Willis to get rid of the ball, he works to let it rip in rhythm. Throwing with anticipation instead of waiting for the receiver to get open is one of the areas where the Titans believe Willis has made an improvement, as evidenced by his throw to Kinsey.
After finishing OTAs on a high note, Willis will work with his coach, Quincy Avery, with the expectation of picking up right where he left off when the Titans return to training camp in July.
“He can’t come back here at the end of July and we have to start from scratch again,” London said. “He’s got to continue to improve and master the offense so when we come back we can hit the ground running.”