Tennessee Titans rookie signal-caller Malik Willis started Thursday night's 23-10 preseason-opening loss to the Baltimore Ravens, displaying his massive cannon and explosive running ability, but he also struggled some with the processing part of quarterbacking.
"I mean, you've got a lot to learn from, a lot to look at on film, so I guess it's really cool to get out there again and play football," Willis said after the game. "You know, I missed some things, probably, and I just made up for it with my legs and continued to rely on that, but that's what preseason is for. So you just see those things against a live defense, one we hadn't played before. ... You gotta look at the film, check it for what it's worth, and continue to work. I mean, we're in the middle of camp."
The game started out rocky, with Willis nearly throwing an interception on the first drive. Often under siege by a good Ravens D-line, the rookie looked a bit slow processing at times and failed to pull the trigger, relying on his otherworldly athleticism when his first read wasn't open.
"I should have done better," Willis noted. "Like I said, it's a learning experience and you have to take it for what it is. It's preseason, but it's an opportunity at the same time, so I'm just going to try and continue to work and watch through the film and just keep on going."
Willis completed 6 of 11 passes for 107 yards with zero touchdowns, zero INTs and an 88.1 passer rating. He added five rushes for 38 yards and a score. While some of his throws were off the mark, he did display a massive arm, uncorking a 48-yard deep shot to Racey McMath and another 19-yard dart to Mason Kinsey.
"I think it was OK. There were some sloppy stuff, but he got us into the right plays and it probably comes down to execution," Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said of Willis' showing. "It's different; it's a new experience for all of these guys. We've got a lot of rookies on this team, and there's going to be a lot of guys that will continue to develop and get better. Just want to make sure that they're competing each and every day, and they understand how difficult this league is, especially as a young quarterback, to step back in there with a live rush and seeing coverage.
"That's why we have these preseason games. That's why I wanted to put him out there. That's why I wanted him to take the ball, to put him in those situations. That's the only way you can grow. He kept some plays alive with his legs, and 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 displayed all the traits that made him a polarizing draft prospect. The rookie still has a ways to go to develop the mental aspect of the position -- which he admitted. But the physical tools are there. On his touchdown run, the QB escaped the pocket, raced down the sideline, didn't step out of bounds, cut it up, and reached pay dirt. It was the type of play that makes Willis an enticing weapon at quarterback.
Vrabel noted that he wants to see the rookie get rid of it a little quicker.
"He needs to try to throw the ball when guys are open, be more decisive," Vrabel said. "We'll evaluate that, see if there's a timing issue or what's going on. Wanted to get him out there, see how he responds. There were some good plays and obviously some plays we're gonna have to look at the timing on the release and if we're making the right decisions."
Thursday's action is precisely why preseason is good for young players. Willis got his feet wet, displayed some good things, and now has a better idea of what he needs to work on. With a redshirt season on tap behind Ryan Tannehill, these preseason games are huge for the rookie's growth. He'll have two more preseason games to continue growing, in which he should play plenty.
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