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Front Page - Friday, August 25, 2023

Vrabel encouraged by Willis’ year 2 progress

Second-year quarterback Malik Willis has given the Titans hope for the future. - Photo by Stacy Bengs | AP

Selecting Will Levis in the second round of this year’s draft signaled to most that Ryan Tannehill’s time in Tennessee might be short and Malik Willis’ time as a Titan might be even shorter.

After all, fewer players on the roster had a lower stock than Willis, a third-round pick in 2022 who was thrust into the starting role as a very raw rookie once Tannehill went down with an ankle injury.

Willis’ first-season numbers were bad – zero touchdown passes and not even 100 yards passing in three starts and eight total appearances. It didn’t help that Jon Robinson, who traded up to draft Willis, was fired in December. And it certainly didn’t help Willis that he was benched in favor of Josh Dobbs, who was snatched off the Lions’ practice squad to come in and run the offense after just eight days in the building.

All of that added up to an unpromising second season for Malik Willis.

But for all the struggles and the naysayers, Willis has done something about it this offseason. He has worked and he has improved. A lot.

And while there are still plenty of things for the former Liberty University star to improve upon, the Titans seem encouraged that he is learning to use his athletic gifts and make them translate into playing quarterback in the NFL.

Titans coach Mike Vrabel spoke of Willis’ development after watching tape of the Titans preseason win over the Vikings and how he needs to continue to learn the nuances of the position in order to play his best.

“If the protection breaks down and Malik’s got to take off, that’s his skillset and that can be a strength,” Vrabel says. “When the protection is there and Nick (Westbrook-Ikhine) is there, we’ve got to hit it. Malik knows that. (We’re) excited about his ability to use his legs as a weapon, but then also remain a passer.”

Vrabel then checks through the things Willis did to manage the end of the 24-16 preseason win against the Vikings.

“All these little things at the end of the game, four-minute. Hey bud, love the call. Loved everything that we did. We just need 10 yards to get a first down. Slide. You’re not trying to score there. We don’t want to go and put the ball in harm’s way,” Vrabel says. “All these little things that, situationally, is great that it comes up.

“You convert a first down. They don’t have any timeouts. It goes to the two-minute warning, that game is over. So, a first down is really all we need. We don’t need you trying to take off and outrun everybody and let a safety come in and give you a hit that’s not warranted or put the ball in harm’s way. Just get down and we’ll kneel on it.”

Willis played virtually the whole game with Levis and Tannehill unavailable, and while his numbers didn’t jump off the stat sheet, it was another learning experience and another step in the right direction.

After two preseason games, Willis looks to have played well enough to force the Titans to keep him on the 53-man roster. Trying to slide him through to the practice squad would no doubt cause some team to claim him off waivers.

For Willis, he was matter-of-fact in describing his situation and his doubters, saying that he now knows the offense and it is paying dividends.

“I know the plays now. That’s the biggest difference, literally,” Willis says. “I just needed to learn the offense. Now we’ve got a new offense and I’m speaking the same language. So it’s just going to be (about) reps at this point.”