Titans’ Malik Willis focused on mastering the ‘in-between’ situations as a runner and thrower in rookie season

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The intrigue surrounding the Tennessee Titans‘ rookie quarterback just grew this week. On Saturday night, the Music City got its first look at who could be the quarterback of the future in Malik Willis. A dual-threat signal-caller, the former Liberty star can hurt you with both his arm and his legs. So far, however, just one of those facets has made the full transition to the next level. 

Despite an overall impressive first preseason outing against the Baltimore Ravens, Willis was actually pulled from the contest in the third quarter because he was too quick to use his scrambling ability as opposed to going through his process as a thrower and staying in the pocket. Willis threw more Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, attempting 17 passes compared to 11 last week, but it’s clear he’s still a work in process.

Willis actually recorded his first passing touchdown as an NFL player just before halftime — a six-yard hookup with fellow rookie Chigoziem Okonkwo. While it was a special moment for Willis, his main takeaway from the play was that he stayed in the pocket.  

“It was cool. Everyone did their job, I finally stood in there for once,” Willis said. “The O-Line did a great job, Chig got open for me, and everybody else ran good routes and it just worked out.”

Staying in the pocket, stepping up in the pocket and going through progressions were clearly items Willis and the Titans coaching staff put an emphasis on over the last week. Willis was asked if he felt more comfortable with his technique Saturday night, but he pointed out that it’s not necessarily about being comfortable, it’s about making the right decision. 

“Well I felt a little bit more comfortable, but it’s not about feeling comfortable,” said Willis. “It’s about making it a big point to stay in the pocket when I can, and not just cause I’m athletic or I can get out when I want to just to get out sometimes. It’s understanding when and when not to. And that’s why I’m a little disappointed in myself for, I think I got out a little bit too much. But it’s a growing process. It’s my second preseason game. I’m not going to be too hard on myself in that regard.” 

Willis is right to understand he shouldn’t be hard on himself after his second ever NFL game. In fact, there were instances where he made the right decisions. Check out this 25-yard run in the second quarter, where the rookie made the conscious decision to step up in the pocket, but then also knew when to take off. He kept his eyes downfield — his body showed us he was looking to fire away — but he flipped the switch quickly.

Overall, Willis completed 7 of 17 passes for 80 yards and a touchdown to go along with five rushes for 42 yards. He said he was a little better in the pocket in his second preseason game compared to his first. With dynamic playmakers like Willis, it takes time to diagnose what he describes as the “in-between.”

“I’ve been thinking about it. It was a little bit better than Week 1,” said Willis. “I got a few check downs that I stayed in there and just got it out quickly. But not by much. I think it’s something I just need to focus on, and continue to just find that in-between from when I need a play, make a play, and when I don’t, then just climb in the pocket and help my O-Line out.”

Willis has the arm and the legs to be successful in the NFL. Now, it’s about understanding how to use them in the right situations. You can’t be a dual-threat quarterback unless you know when to use which weapon. It says something that Willis is this aware about what is arguably the most important facet of his development. It’s just another reason why NFL fans should be excited about this kid. 


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Jordan Dajani

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