For Malik Willis, warming up and smelling fresh, cut grass under the August sun weren’t new experiences.
He lived through plenty of them during his time at Liberty, a private institution that’s more known for its evangelical work than its success on the football field. But on August 11th, 2022, the normal warm ups that Willis had conducted so many times in the past, had to have felt more different that usual.
Because on August 11th, 2022, Willis set foot on an NFL field for the first time as not only a rookie with a lot of promise and hype to his name. But as a professional expected to carry out their grueling duties as a professional NFL quarterback.
His debut was long awaited by fans, anxious to set eyes on the team’s newest potential franchise quarterback after he unexpectedly fell into the Tennessee Titans’ lap during the second night of the 2022 NFL Draft.
And you couldn’t really blame them for feeling that way.
A quarterback with a rocket arm and an athletic profile you usually see from skill players doesn’t come around all that often. That rings true even in this day and age, with two of the game’s most promising signal callers revolving their game around their ability to punish defenses with their strong arms and their legs whenever the opportunity presents itself.
However, as much as fans were excited about Willis’ debut, there was some hesitancy due to the fact that Willis had yet master the nuances the Titans want to see from their signal callers. Training camp presented Willis the chance to do that, but through the first few weeks of camp, Willis’ on-field evaluation was more of a mixed bag than one full of positives.
Which wasn’t unexpected, considering just how raw and unpolished Willis is at this stage of his development.
So when Willis ran onto the field for his first official NFL snap, mixed in with the excitement, were feelings of nervousness and a tiny sprinkling of fear.
Those emotional flames were fueled even further an underwhelming three and out by Willis to open the game, one that included a near pick six on an ugly late throw near the sideline.
After that though, Willis began find comfort in using his legs to make the plays necessary to move the Titans’ offense down the field. Though none were more important than Willis’ second scramble of the game, a highlight play that showcased one of the many things that make the former Liberty star such an eye catching prospect.
Later on, Willis avoided relying solely on his legs, and displayed the arm strength that excited NFL scouts during the pre-draft process.
But as much as Willis raised the roof and created an impossible amount of intrigue to a useless preseason game, he also brought plenty of mistakes to the table.
None more notable than his indecisiveness while throwing the football, a head scratching habit of sorts that got him pulled shortly after the third quarter began.
You might discard that same indecisiveness and declare it unnecessary if he’s using his legs and running all over opposing defenses. On the surface, it’s hard to blame you for doing so, since offensive football these days is about results — no matter which way you can get them — as much as it is about the other vast amount of details that make this game so difficult to master no matter the position.
But in the grand scheme of things, you have to acknowledge the unwillingness to throw the football and the act of over-relying on your supreme athletic gifts.
Failing to do so can disrupt the flow of an offense, not to mention it can also put a quarterback at a higher risk of injury. Something that already felt more like an upscaled concern due to Willis’ smaller than average 6’0 1/2, 219 pound frame.
“He kept some plays alive with his legs,” Mike Vrabel explained. “We just have to be able to combine some of that with making great decisions when guys are open and being decisive and accurate with the football.”
Willis himself echoed the same message his head coach preached, a sentiment that feels more encouraging than not.
“I missed some things,” Malik Willis said. “I just made up for them with my legs, [but] I can’t continue to rely on that.”
Like practicing times tables, or working on your jump shot in the gym, this problem of failing to pull the trigger on passing plays will eventually work itself out by more game time and more reps taken. There, the repetitive nature of the correct actions will slowly integrate itself into Willis’ game, eventually becoming second nature and helping Willis eliminate one of the problems that’s impacting his development so far.
There’s no reason to assume it won’t either.
Willis’ willingness to work has been applauded by his teammates and coaches. Combine that with the growing mental aspect of the game, and it isn’t unreasonable to believe that Willis will eventually display a respectable amount of growth when it’s time for Willis to play important snaps.
But won’t occur for a while, at least the Titans hope it won’t. They’d much rather let him sit back and work on his game while avoiding the pressure that comes with being a quarterback on a team that’s dead-set on winning as much as possible.
And for Willis’ sake, that’s probably for the best.
“You just have to look at the film, take it for what it’s worth, and continue to work.”