NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It was the final day of OTAs and the Tennessee Titans were working on their red zone offense. Coach Mike Vrabel declared the down and distance.
“Third-and-4 from the 5-yard line,” Vrabel yelled.
Second-year quarterback Malik Willis broke the huddle and scanned the defense. As he went through his cadence, he saw the defense shift.
But that didn’t impact 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 touchdown and blew the whistle to end practice. It was a perfect way for the Titans to wrap up 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 is definitely different from last year,” Willis added. “I think when you have a whole year of doing something, you just get a little more comfortable doing it.”
That hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates.
“He seems a lot more confident in the huddle,” said tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo, who is also coming into his second year. “When he’s calling the plays and with his reads, he’s a lot more decisive with the ball.”
Veteran incumbent 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. That player was unable to register a 100-yard passing game and had more interceptions (three) than touchdown passes (zero).
But all of those struggles can’t 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 into the project category — as Tennessee planned to develop him from the ground up. But that developmental process was accelerated when Willis beat out Logan Woodside for the backup quarterback spot in training camp last year.
Tennessee was confident in Tannehill’s durability because he hadn’t missed a game since he became 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 entrance to 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 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 bolster the quarterback room when Tennessee traded up for the second year in a row to take Kentucky quarterback Will Levis with the No. 33 pick.
Despite that, Vrabel did note that Willis would be Tannehill’s backup entering OTAs and minicamp, making Levis third on the depth chart, but stated that the two of them will have to battle for the backup spot.
In Willis’ mind, however, he’s not competing with anyone other than the version of himself from the previous day. All he wants to do is make improvements from one day to the next, something new Titans quarterback coach/passing game coordinator Charles London has echoed.
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 each play within the scheme, though. When the play calls for Willis to get rid of the ball, he is working 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 shown by his throw to Kinsey.
After ending OTAs on a high note, Willis will work with his trainer, Quincy Avery, with the expectation of picking up right where he left off when the Titans return for 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 must continue to improve and master the offense so when we come back we can hit the ground running.”