Why Will Levis can live up to the hype, from Kentucky OC Liam Coen

We recently began a three-part series on new Titans rookie quarterback Will Levis. We first interviewed Levis’ quarterbacks coach Jordan Palmer. We continue that series today with an exclusive conversation with current Kentucky offensive coordinator Liam Coen. In many ways, coach Coen is the most fascinating figure around Levis that directly ties to the Tennessee Titans.

A decorated and ascending coaching veteran at just 37, Coen worked with the Los Angeles Rams from 2018-20 in various assistant roles. Coen arrived in Los Angeles the same year that then-Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur left the organization to install the first offense in Tennessee under Mike Vrabel in 2018. The overlaps continue.

Coen then became Kentucky’s offensive coordinator in 2021. Levis enjoyed the most successful season of his career under Coen, having thrown for career-highs in yards (2,826) and touchdowns (24). Coen then returned to Los Angeles as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator in 2022 before recently returning to Kentucky in that same role.

The Titans have been through a few changes at offensive coordinator since LaFleur first installed an offense Coen helped separately install in Los Angeles, but many of the baseline similarities and verbiage remains in place. This gives Coen a unique profile on the Levis-to-Tennessee fit. Coen possesses one of the nation’s most brilliant offensive minds.

Coen recently spoke exclusively with Broadway Sports. Coen discussed Levis’ fit in Tennessee, how similar Kentucky’s offense was to Tennessee’s, the difference between “pro style” and “spread” offenses, Levis’ work ethic, Levis’ performances in 2021 versus 2022, and so much more. Coen also touched on Levis’ potential as a quarterback.

JM: Will Levis himself, his quarterbacks coach Jordan Palmer, and several others I’ve spoken with mentioned that Tennessee was one of — if not THE — preferred destination. What was it about that spot that really felt like a good fit for Levis?

Liam Coen: I couldn’t agree more with that assessment. This [Tennessee Titans] was the perfect fit the entire time. That’s my personal opinion. Firstly, he has an opportunity to sit and learn behind a good quarterback [Ryan Tannehill]. He doesn’t have to play right away.

I don’t care where you are. No team in the National Football League wants that. I can’t imagine there are a ton of teams in the NFL that say, “Man, we can’t wait to play with a rookie quarterback.” 

Some teams ultimately find themselves in that position, but it’s never necessarily the goal, even if it can be a good experience at times. That’s part of why I loved the fit. 

Then I think about the system. What they [Titans] do offensively really fits his skill set. They have a really good run game, and a really solid defense. They have a hard-nosed mentality throughout the entire organization.

His [Levis] super power is play-action passing. You can call a max protection and run a play-action pass. They can pull the safeties down in the box with the threat of the run game. Levis can throw the heck out of the football from that platform. 

It’s a great system for him. He’s in a really good situation.

JM: I want to build on that. How much do you know about the Titans’ scheme, and how much of what they’re likely to ask him to do will overlap with what you asked of Levis at Kentucky?

Liam Coen: Yeah, I think there’s probably going to be some overlap. One thing he [Levis] knows he needs to get better at is protecting his body when he runs the football. Ryan Tannehill has done a good job in that department for them.

That’s something Levis has been working on, he’s been working on that mentality. When you’re in the NFL, the team has a lot invested in your availability. He needs to make sure he takes care of his body when he takes off and runs.

That’s an underrated aspect of his game. He can run the football. At the next level, he has to be able to get down at times, slide or go out of bounds. He can’t put himself in harm’s way.

JM: Matt LaFleur, who was once the offensive coordinator with the Rams, did the original install of Tennessee’s offensive system under head coach Mike Vrabel in 2018, though it’s been through a few different offensive coordinators since. You worked in that Rams system as well. Do you know if they’re still using similar terminology to what you helped install?

Liam Coen: Yeah, I think the Titans are. I spoke with Will Levis yesterday (5/11). He mentioned that some of the formations carried over for him. I don’t believe they’ve done a ton yet, rookie minicamp is later this weekend (5/13). From there, he’ll get an opportunity to do something with the veterans soon.

He’s been doing some stuff with the rookies. He’s learning the formations, verbiage, and terminology. Based on the conversations I’ve had with him, it seems like there’s some similarities there with some pure west coast terminology with some of the formations. There’s a carryover there for him.

JM: That’s terrific to hear. The story of Levis’ arrival in Lexington was unique. From missing spring ball to graduating in three years from Penn State, and then leapfrogging two other highly rated quarterback prospects on the depth chart and being named captain within a matter of weeks — is a fascinating story. Can you take us through what that was like from your vantage point?

Liam Coen: He came in here and like you mentioned, he was on Zoom for the quarterback meetings throughout Spring Ball. He would call and text some of the quarterback coaches and myself. He would ask about plays from practice. He was watching practice film all throughout the Spring.

He arrived here in May. He started working out right away with the guys. That’s ultimately one of the things that led to him earning that captain role so early. It was because of his work ethic throughout that summer.

His teammates were here working out. Levis was the hardest worker. He was arguably one of the hardest working kids in our building. Especially for a quarterback, his compete level in the weight room and during conditioning drills was impressive.

He came into training camp and was running with the third-team offense for the first six days. He wasn’t even with the first-or-second-team offense. He was getting reps with the third-team offense on the other side of the field.

When Levis got here, coach Mark Stoops felt like he wanted Levis to earn it, and I felt the same way. I completely agreed with it. 

It got to the point where the players were the ones asking for him to move up and take reps with the first-team offense. That’s how you want it to happen. You want the players on the team to ultimately say, “Hey coach, can we take reps with this quarterback?” 

They felt like he was the guy.

JM: Building on that, how would you describe his work ethic?

Liam Coen: He’s a machine in a lot of ways. That’s the honest truth. He’s the first one in and the last one to leave. He’s always putting in extra work. He always wants to know what he could work on. He wants to get better.

He knows how to push himself beyond his comfort level. That’s something that he does with his teammates. He makes sure they’re doing the same thing. He’s not an overly vocal leader. He leads with his work ethic and how he goes about his business.

JM: What’s your take on his footwork, accuracy and decision making? Those are such important traits for a quarterback.

Liam Coen: He had gone through another coaching change. If you’re keeping score, that was the fourth coaching change of his college football career.  I think they switched his feet up going into last season. He was a right foot forward guy, and they went left foot forward in 2022. They did some different things footwork wise. That was a big change.

That takes time. That doesn’t just happen. Some of the decision making, when things are clean and he knows where to go with the football, he can deliver it. He just needs to continue working when he has to move on in the progression. He has to keep his feet quiet, calm and clean.

He can make any throw.

JM: When I spoke with coach Jordan Palmer, who helped train him throughout the pre-draft process, he had some interesting things to say about “pro-style” offense versus spread quarterbacks and systems, like the one Hendon Hooker ran at Tennessee. 

Coach Palmer had an interesting opinion that stated sometimes the media throws the terms “pro style” around, but it really means more about how much processing and verbiage is required. It doesn’t mean spread-system quarterbacks don’t process, and that can be a bit of a misconception.

Liam Coen: A “pro style” offense in my opinion means you’re in the huddle. You get underneath the center. You call a play in the huddle with your own voice. You get to the line of scrimmage and you verbally use the cadence.

To me, a “spread” offense is no huddle. It has signals and a clap cadence. None of that is what occurs in the National Football League. Absolutely zero. 

That to me is what a “pro style” offense means. The concepts, the plays, they all carry over from spread to pro style. It’s more about how you operate. Will Levis got the plays from the sideline. In the NFL, he’ll get the play in his headset. He has to hear that play call, regurgitate it to himself, walk into the huddle with his eyes up and confidence. He’s going to look his teammates in the eyes and call that play like it’s the best play on earth. 

He’s going to break the huddle and get up to the line of scrimmage where he’ll identify the [defensive] front, coverage, and identify anybody in protection. He’ll then verbally use a cadence to snap the ball. To me, that’s the real difference between a pro style and spread offense.

In a spread, a play happens, you’re looking to the sideline [for the signal] and everybody is getting lined up off that signal formationally. You may then tell the offensive line a protection or a direction. You’re assessing the defense and then clapping your hands to snap the ball. All of that includes very little verbal communication. That to me is the difference.

JM: How do you relate that to what Will Levis was asked to do at Kentucky?

Liam Coen: The pro style example is all Will Levis was asked to do at Kentucky. That’s what he did. Yeah, we ran some no-huddle and he can run some signal-based concepts. Levis can use tempo and do all of that.

He can operate a pro style offense. We called it “call-it-and-run-it” plays. Let’s run a call-it-and-run-it play. You also have “OSCARS” which are hey, you’re going to run one play the same way, but on the opposite side based on the defense. That’s an audible, or an “OSCAR.”

We also used a “CAN” system. You’re running this play, “CAN” that play, and that could mean run-to-run, run-to-pass, pass-to-run or pass-to-pass. As the quarterback, when you call that play in the huddle, you’re the one making the decision at the line of scrimmage as to why you change or don’t change the play.

In a spread system, more often than not, the coaches, not the quarterback, will make that decision. The coaches will make that decision based on the look over or a freeze. 

Will Levis can do all of those things right now.

JM: This might be difficult to answer since you weren’t there, but by all accounts, 2021 was a better season for him than 2022. What do you think went wrong this last season?

Liam Coen: Here’s what I think about that. They lost three starting offensive linemen to the NFL. Luke Fortner was the center. He played every single snap for the Jacksonville Jaguars this past season. Darrian Kinnard was the right tackle. He was a fifth-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Dare Rosenthal was with the Atlanta Falcons.

Those are starting offensive linemen we lost to the NFL. We were a Joe Moore Award [awarded annually to the best college football offensive line unit] finalist on the offensive line. They lost three of those five.

And then you have a new offensive coordinator. You have your running back, who is one of the best at his position in the SEC, missing four or five games. And by the way, you graduate Wan’Dale Robinson and Josh Ali at wide receiver. Robinson was a second-round pick of the New York Giants. Ali is with the Falcons.

Robinson had 104 receptions for 1,334 receiving yards. That’s hard to replace. You had two freshmen, Barion Brown and Dane Key stepping into their place. Those kids [Brown and Key] are talented and they’re going to be really good football players, but I can call them into the room right now and they’ll tell you themselves they weren’t sure if they were supposed to run a curl route at 12 [yards], 10, 8 or 14. It’s understandable. They were freshmans.

When a veteran quarterback knows that, sometimes you start to lack a little trust in what’s around you. Your record is what it is and you feel like you need to win a few games. You might start forcing some things when trying to make a few plays, plays you otherwise wouldn’t make.

I think that’s probably where you saw some of that happen.

JM: That’s a terrific and honest breakdown. We’ve really appreciated your time today coach. You’ve been so generous. In closing, if Will Levis reaches his potential, how good will be?

Liam Coen: That’s a difficult question for a coach to answer. He has so many good things going for him. He can provide all of those things to an NFL organization. It’s really just about whether or not he can process the game at an elite level as he continues to learn.

Every rookie quarterback has to learn and grow. There’s an acclimation period involved with the speed of the pro game. He will continue learning how to become a quarterback in the National Football League.

You have to believe he can be a starting quarterback in the NFL. I believe he can be a productive starting quarterback.

Author: Justin MeloSenior Writer, Interviewer and Podcaster for Broadway Sports covering the Tennessee Titans and NFL draft. For more than five years, Justin Melo has professionally covered all things NFL draft and Titans for The Draft Network, SB Nation and USA Today. Best known for his Interview Series with NFL draft prospects, Justin has interviewed more than 500 NFL players. Co-host of the Music City Audible podcast alongside Justin Graver (@titansfilmroom).

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