Tennessee Titans rookie QB Malik Willis making strides in transition to NFL

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A rocket arm. An elite skill set that makes him a dual threat. Those are a couple of things that jump off of the screen when watching Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback Malik Willis play.

The raw talent that Willis displayed while dominating at Liberty intrigued Titans general manager Jon Robinson enough to move up four spots in the third round to select him.

But Willis is a work in progress. The Titans are treating Willis' development like a carefully crafted home-cooked meal as opposed to a quick microwaved dinner.

"Daily improvement," Titans quarterback coach Pat O'Hara said. "It's a 1% better theme, no rushing on it."

Tennessee's staff is pleased with how Willis has progressed from an operational standpoint. He has made strides in getting into the huddle and calling the play, something he didn't have to do in college because the plays were relayed to the offense from the sideline.

Getting under center and taking the snap was another adjustment for Willis, who operated primarily out of the shotgun at Liberty. Now that Willis has gotten the operation down, the next step is processing what is happening and making the right decision.

"Naturally there's going to be a learning curve," Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing said. "He is a very gifted thrower that has great ball speed and has an accurate ball. There are probably times when he got away with things collegiately that he's not going to be able to get away with in the pros.

"Tying his feet to his progressions and helping the timing, there will be a major step in the process. He's made strides and realizing that he can trust that process."

Titans coach Mike Vrabel said they are honing in on ways to improve Willis' pocket awareness with drills that get him to trust the middle of the pocket and step up when guys are rushing on the edge. The pocket-climbing drills came to life when Willis made a surprise start in his preseason debut against the Baltimore Ravens last Thursday.

Sensing some penetration from his left side caused Willis to subtly move to his right, then take a couple of steps up in the pocket and uncork a laser of a throw to wide receiver Mason Kinsey on an out-breaking route towards the right sideline.

No process goes without hiccups.

According to Next Gen Stats, Willis averaged 3.98 seconds before throwing against the Ravens. That's the highest average in the preseason so far. None of his 11 attempts was under the NFL average of 2.5 seconds.

Willis finished the game with six completions for 107 yards in the 23-10 loss and was second on the team in rushing with 38 rushing yards on five attempts and a touchdown.

More reps should help with decision-making and familiarity with the various coverages he'll face.

"It's just really tying it all together," O'Hara said. "We have to tie the lower half of our body to what our mind is telling us to do -- being able to redirect our eyes with our feet -- which we work on daily with our drills."

Being coachable has helped Willis navigate his NFL time, as well.

"I am processing the information and knowing what I need to do," Willis said. "In order to be on time and throw with anticipation, I have to help my feet get up to my processing ability. I am knowing what to do, but it's just getting the reps where you're able to do it without thinking."

Vrabel is exercising patience with Willis, but he isn't treating him with kid gloves. For example, Vrabel gave Willis an ultimatum before he went onto the field to start the second half against Baltimore.

"I wanted Malik to throw the ball, and he wasn't, so I put Logan [Woodside] in," Vrabel said after the game. "We wanted him to rip it, and he didn't it. So, I'm sure he'll rip it the next time that he has an opportunity."

Downing dialed up a play-action pass that gave Willis an opportunity to hit Dez Fitzpatrick as he came open across the middle or get the ball to fellow rookie Treylon Burks, who came open on the seam. Willis missed both of them but scrambled 17 yards.

Therein lies the gift and the curse. Willis' ability to make plays with his feet will sometimes become a default escape mechanism until he feels more comfortable taking shots when they are there.

"We want Malik to ... make as many plays as he possibly can," Vrabel said. "But then understand when things are there in timing and rhythm, that it's a great opportunity to take advantage of those spaces in that timing. Then whatever happens after that if it's not there, then he has to ... be a playmaker."

After the game, Willis acknowledged that he can't continue to rely on his legs. But he vowed to continue his take his development one day at a time.

"I'm blessed in many ways, and I appreciate it," Willis said of his dynamic running ability. "You just got to know when you need it and when you don't. I will worry about just watching the film and continuing to get better."