Why Malik Willis can live up to the hype, from the man who helped build him

The Tennessee Titans sent the internet into a frenzy when they selected former Liberty quarterback Malik Willis with the No. 86 overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft. Willis was one of the most polarizing prospects in the 2022 draft class, with believers touting his rare arm talent and worthiness of the No. 1 overall pick, to doubters wondering if he should be taken in the first round at all. The NFL was admittedly lower on Willis than most pre-draft reports indicated, as his landslide shockingly lasted all the way until the third round.

As for Willis’ trusted quarterbacks coach Sean McEvoy, you can count him among Willis’ most staunch supporters. McEvoy and Quincy Avery run the acclaimed Quarterback Takeover together, and have worked closely with Willis since high school, and all throughout the pre-draft process. McEvoy has continued training Willis ahead of this weekend’s rookie mini-camp in Nashville. It placed part of Willis’ development in the same hands of the men who helped mold Deshaun Watson, Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields and Trey Lance, to name a few.

McEvoy recently spoke exclusively with Broadway Sports Media regarding Willis’ development over their years working together, where his star pupil needs to improve, why the Tennessee Titans represent an ideal situation for Willis’ growth and maturity as a quarterback, and most importantly, why Willis can develop into Tennessee’s quarterback of the future.

JM: You’ve worked very closely with Malik Willis for a number of years, dating back to his high school days at Roswell in Georgia. It’s been quite the journey for him, and he’s had his ups and downs as a player. As someone who’s had a front-row seat, how do you feel he’s grown throughout the years?

SM: He’s continued to address areas of need from an on-the-field development standpoint. He’s been doing that since high school. Early on, it was just about becoming more consistent as a pure passer while learning to use his athleticism as an extra layer to his game, as opposed to being the main focus. He would later arrive at Auburn and he thought he was going to receive an opportunity to start there. He realized he had to attack the off-field aspects of playing quarterback a little bit more. He became better at learning how to develop into a potential QB1. He started working through film and became better prepared to play at the collegiate level. That was a time of growth and development for him.

Once he got to Liberty, he got an opportunity to actually get on the field and it began coming together for him. Each game, each week, each year at Liberty even, there were different areas of his game he needed to address. Whether that was working through his progressions quicker, having his eyes in the right spot, or being prepared for the type of defense they were going to face each week, he was able to work through all of those things.

The next piece was the pre-draft preparation process as he gets ready to play in the NFL. We attacked his footwork throughout that training process. We worked through some of the concepts he’ll be asked to execute at the next level. That’s where our focus has been over the past four or five months.

JM: You’ve been working alongside him as he prepares for Tennessee’s rookie mini-camp this weekend. What are some of the things the Titans have asked Willis to focus on in preparation for his first camp with the team?

SM: It’s mostly been about learning the playbook as he tries to get comfortable with the script they’ll be working on throughout his first weekend at rookie mini-camp. He’s been in daily Zoom meetings with their quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara. They’ve been working through the install. We’re basically taking that install he’s working through with coach O’Hara and taking it to the field. That’s where we enter the picture. We’re working through the footwork required in the passing game in relation to some of the different things they do from a play-action perspective. Those are some of the things he’s been asked to do. We’ve also been working through some of the different route concepts and plays.

We’ve been working towards getting comfortable so that when he does it for the first time starting on Friday May 13th, he feels like he’s ready to roll. We’re looking at it to where I’ve sort of been his liaison in regards to the Titans’ coaching staff. They can’t work with him in-person yet, they’re doing the Zoom calls, and I’m basically running the on-the-field portion of it over this last week-and-a-half.

JM: That’s terrific stuff. How would you describe his work ethic?

SM: From day one, and I’m reaching back to his high school days here, he’s had a goal and vision to play the quarterback position at the highest level imaginable. At the time, he was sort of viewed as a raw athlete in high school. He was a guy that colleges would bring in and maybe switch him to wide receiver or defensive back due to the raw athletic profile.

We always knew he was talented enough to stick at quarterback. His vision remained consistent. He wanted to play quarterback at the highest level. From day one, he was all in on what he needed to do from a work standpoint in order to make that a reality. He was all in on doing whatever it takes to get where he wanted to be. That mindset, that work ethic really has not changed. We went through the process of going from high school to Auburn to Liberty, and now, to the NFL. Whatever the amount of work was needed to get ready and prepare for on-field success, he was willing to overwork in order to make sure he was prepared. That’s really how he’s acted throughout the entire pre-draft process. That’s how he prepared for the Senior Bowl, his Pro Day, and the NFL Scouting Combine. That’s the same way he’s been dialed in these last three weeks to get ready for rookie mini-camp.

JM: That’s terrific news. Charting data shows he favored throws outside the numbers during his time at Liberty. Do you think that was more a function of Liberty’s offense, or is it more in relation to his comfort level throwing to those specific areas of the field?

SM: To be fair, I think it’s probably a combination of both. I think it was certainly heavily predicated on what their offensive scheme was all about. It also played to his strengths, and I don’t think that gets mentioned enough. If you look at the heat map of where his throws went, it looks alarming because it looks like he can’t attack the middle of the field. The reality is that he has this next-level arm strength that allowed him to make such tough throws outside the numbers. I think the reality was Liberty were attacking parts of the field that a lot of other quarterbacks would struggle to attack because Malik can throw those deep comebacks and some of those other sideline routes on a rope. From a scheme perspective, it allowed Liberty to attack parts of the field that are tough for secondaries to defend.

I think it was very much a product of their offense. But sure, as you start working through those routes up the middle, which are a lot of times the routes deeper through your progressions, your second or third read, some of the dig routes and basic routes that attack the middle, it’s something he’s actively working on.

I think it was a combination of both. I think he needs to continue developing and getting better and processing through a full progression of NFL concepts. But I think his ability to make the defense defend the entire width of that 53-and-a-third yards of the field is what makes him so dangerous as well.

JM: A lot has been made about that Liberty offense in general, and some of that may be overblown, but Willis’ transition to what the Titans do will be pretty significant, even down to the footwork under center and the play-action passing concepts you mentioned working through earlier. They’ve loved those concepts since Mike Vrabel became the head coach. Staying on topic with this, and maybe expanding on what we’ve already touched on, how big of a challenge is that going to be for Malik? How is that process coming along so far?

SM: So far, so good. I honestly believe it plays to his strengths. It’s a system you wish you got to see him operate in college. He’s a guy that’s so dangerous in the run game. You have to account for him as a plus-one in that backfield. It makes me feel like defenses would really have to put seven or eight in the box, especially when you factor in the run game they have with a guy like Derrick Henry back there. Being able to work off play-action can really utilize his ability to stretch the field and make big throws down the field. It’s probably what he’s best set-up to have the most success with at the next level.

There’s an excitement that comes with that. But sure, learning footwork that he hasn’t been asked to do previously is always a challenge. He got a taste of it while preparing for the Senior Bowl in January. The Detroit Lions asked him to do some of that stuff in Mobile. They ran some play-action stuff under center. It was also a big piece of what we prepared him to show at his Pro Day. If you go back and watch his Pro Day script, there was a lot of quick five-step play-action to a strike route. That’s a basic concept of Tennessee’s passing offense. You’ll see that play 10 times per game when watching Titans tape. It’s something specifically we worked on ahead of the Pro Day because we knew we wanted to showcase that piece of it.

The good news is that he’s received a head start on preparing for it. It’s really all we’ve focused on over the past two weeks. We’ve been getting comfortable with the play action off of the inside and outside zone concepts, and some of the bootleg stuff we know he’s going to be asked to do in Tennessee.

Malik is excited about it. He knows it’s going to set up some really big opportunities for him in the passing game.

Anytime you’ve never seen a guy do it, there’s always a question in the back of your mind whether or not he’s capable of doing it. Right? You’d feel better if you turned on his college film and there were 300 reps of him doing this live. As a product of coach Hugh Freeze’s offense at Liberty, you didn’t have that. People that have been around Malik and have watched him learn and develop like I have, there’s really no question about his ability to execute anything he’s asked to do. He’s excited to show everybody that in Tennessee.

JM: This may be a question you feel like you’ve already answered, but I’m loving picking your brain. Those who aren’t as high on him will obviously point to Liberty’s offense and some of the post-snap processing issues. The offense had a bunch of simple reads. Some rumors indicate that may be why he slid to the third round, in relation to differing comfort levels with what he’s been asked to do. What do you typically say to that?

SM: At some point, NFL evaluators and decision makers have to extrapolate data or extrapolate what they’ve seen and project to what Malik can become. I think teams that weren’t sold on him missed the boat. All they could see from him is exactly what they saw on tape in relation to that offense. Does that make sense?

The guys that are going to get this right, the ones that were high on him, realized that when you have as much talent as he does, we can teach him to execute the things maybe we didn’t see enough of from him on tape. That’s the hard part, right? Because you have to project it, some guys feel more comfortable than others when projecting. Others feel more confident in the ability of their coaching staff to develop and teach something they haven’t seen. Not every staff is always comfortable with that. I think that definitely played into the draft process and why some teams were more interested in him than others.

I have a unique view on the situation because I’ve seen Malik right next to some amazing quarterback prospects we’ve worked alongside throughout the years. My belief in what he’ll become in the NFL and where his talent stacks up is based on me seeing him train alongside Justin Fields, Trey Lance, and Deshaun Watson. I know how he stacks in comparison to those guys. I’m obviously really high on his ability to develop and project to the next level in a similar manner to how those guys have, and will develop going forward.

JM: That’s a bold statement. I’m curious to get your thoughts on what you make of the landing spot in Tennessee. Having read that excellent piece you contributed to in The Athletic earlier this week, it didn’t sound like Tennessee was really on the shortlist of teams yourself or his representation expected him to be drafted by.

SM: I think it’s a phenomenal fit. The reason we didn’t initially identify Tennessee as a likely landing spot was because we were confident he was going to be drafted earlier than he was. It didn’t feel like Tennessee was going to be a team that was going to make a push to land him that early. We didn’t feel like they were going to make a move at the quarterback position in the first round. We didn’t think they were going to use a first-round pick there. That was perhaps why we didn’t identify them early on.

At that point, we thought it was Pittsburgh, Seattle, or Atlanta. We eventually received some good information that it probably wasn’t going to be Atlanta or Seattle, because they saw things a little bit differently. We were still projecting him to get drafted inside the top-20 or so. It didn’t feel like Tennessee was going to make a move that early.

The way it played out, I’d say he probably landed in one of the best three or four fits for him. That’s a combination of some of the stuff we touched on earlier. They have a run-oriented offense that he’ll eventually be able to add too. What he can do with his legs sets up the play-action passing game. It plays to his strengths so well, as I said earlier.

And for a guy that needs to develop a little bit, learn some new footwork while working through concepts at the NFL level, it makes sense that he lands in a spot that has a very confident and talented starting quarterback such as Ryan Tannehill. It gives Malik a chance to learn and develop at the speed the Titans need him to without feeling like they have to rush him onto the field right away.

There were a couple of other situations like that such as Detroit or Pittsburgh that are setup somewhat similarly, but now that we’re here and seeing it happen, I think Tennessee is probably as good of a landing spot as any for him.

JM: From what you’ve seen, how do you sort of stack him up against some of the quarterbacks in the 2022 class? With all due respect to those guys, should he have been the first quarterback drafted? I ask because it was really interesting to hear you compare him to Deshaun Watson, Justin Fields, and Trey Lance, who you’ve worked alongside.

SM: I do think he should have been drafted first. I mean no disrespect, but from a talent standpoint, it’s pretty clear that nobody else had the athleticism he does at his position. Clearly nobody had the arm strength he has either. From an arm talent standpoint, I think he stands alone in this class. That’s clearly true from an athletic standpoint as well. The ability of what he can do with his legs is really special, and undeniably at the top of this quarterback class. That combination where if you’re the best athlete, the best runner, combined with the best pure arm talent, I think it’s hard to compare anybody else with.

For us, it was less about the comparison to the other quarterbacks in this class, and more about the comparison to guys like Justin Fields and Trey Lance from last year’s draft class. It’s difficult for me to rationalize how Trey Lance goes No. 3 overall, Justin Fields goes in the top 15, and a guy like Malik Willis wasn’t valued the same way. That’s where we’re at.

JM: That’s an excellent point. I’ve really appreciated your time today. I feel like this conversation has captured why Titans fans should be extremely excited about Malik Willis’ future. I’ve taken up so much of your time today, and I appreciate you. In closing, what can Malik Willis become if he reaches his full potential?

SM: He has the ability and the skill level to become among the top-five, top 10 best quarterbacks in the NFL. To me, it’s not some hopeful projection. This is me being there through the development of Deshaun Watson. I remember where he was when he came out as a prospect, and I saw what he’s become through the work he put in. All of that makes me feel very comfortable putting Willis next to the Watson’s, Fields’ and Lance’s of the world. Dwayne Haskins and Jalen Hurts are two other ones we trained. These are our guys and we’ve taken them through similar processes as the one we’re working through with Malik Willis. It goes from college to the NFL, the same way it has with Malik.

We’ve been able to benchmark where different guys were at different points of the process. You can never tell what they’re ultimately going to be, but Malik is very much in-line alongside the top guys we’ve ever seen and worked with. He has the skill set to potentially exceed those guys.

There’s reason to think that if he continues to work the way he’s always worked, there’s no reason why he can’t be one of the best five quarterbacks in the league.

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