To understand Tennessee Titans' Malik Willis, start with Hugh Freeze's 'oh my gosh' moment

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Hugh Freeze wanted to pull his hair out.

The Liberty Flames football coach watched his team go through a red-zone drill during practice. That’s when his star quarterback, Malik Willis, threw an interception. A defensive lineman tipped the pass and a defensive back scooped it up.

Freeze, fuming, saw Willis go over to the defense and congratulate the two players responsible for the turnover. He told them how great of a job they just did.

Then Willis came over to his frustrated coach. And like the countless other times Freeze has been angry, his quarterback just placed his arm around him:

We’ll make the next one, coach. Well make the next one. 

“While it may drive me crazy, it made everybody in that locker room want to follow him and want to be around him,” Freeze said. “He has this attractive humility about him to where it was never really about him. It doesn’t mean he’s not competitive. … He’s just got that rare quality in today’s time where he’s not seeking others’ approval.”

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Willis’ former coaches and trainers who spoke to The Tennessean described the Tennessee Titans third-round rookie as joyful with a magnetic aura.

It offered a glimpse into the personality of the man the Titans drafted as their potential quarterback of the future. Willis will sit behind veteran incumbent Ryan Tannehill for at least a season.

‘He sets the temperature for the room’

John Ford recalled the mornings during the 2016 high school football season.

The coach at Roswell High School in Georgia at the time, Ford and his staff would hold meetings, watch film and plan practice at the field house. And every day, no matter what, Willis stuck his head through the door, smiling and grinning ear-to-ear:

Hey, coaches. How are you doing? 

“He had such a great demeanor at all times,” said Ford. “Always smiling. Always connecting with others. Making others around him feel better.

“He’s not a thermometer. He’s a thermostat,” added Ford. “He sets the temperature for the room and always does it with tremendous joy. … If you have a bad day around Malik Willis, there’s something wrong with you.”

In college, Willis went on quarterback retreats during spring break. The group – which featured future first-round draft picks Dwayne Haskins, Justin Fields and Trey Lance – would spend a week in Los Angeles or Miami to train daily.

“Even amongst a group of peer, elite quarterbacks, he was always the one people gravitated to,” said Sean McEvoy, a private quarterback coach who has worked with Willis since he was a junior in high school.

Willis is “mild-mannered” until you get him talking about something he’s passionate about, McEvoy explained. Football, golf, music and video games are some of those passions.

On those topics, he’ll go from just hanging out to leading the conversation.

“Very much likes to think through things,” McEvoy said. “He likes to process. I think he’s very thoughtful in opinions he expresses. Like he wants to feel he’s wrapped his head around (a concept) before he’ll give an opinion on a topic.

“I think it’s very similar to the way he processes things on the football field.”

Titans quarterback Malik Willis (7) talks with tight end Chin Okonkwo (85) during a Rookie Mini-Camp practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Friday, May 13, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.
Titans quarterback Malik Willis (7) talks with tight end Chin Okonkwo (85) during a Rookie Mini-Camp practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Friday, May 13, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

Developing as a quarterback

When Willis arrived at Liberty in 2019, the NFL was the furthest thing from Freeze's mind when assessing his new quarterback.

The Flames knew he could run. They felt confident they could win games with him. But he attempted just 14 passes in two years before transferring from Auburn. His limited snaps focused on his running skills. The biggest unknown was whether Willis could be a functional passer.

He was on the scout team his first year at Liberty, ineligible to play as a transfer. By spring 2020, Willis was an “average” practice player still learning the offense and honing his mechanics, according to Freeze.

Then came the following season.

“We get to the fall and turn the lights on and five games in you’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Freeze said. “‘He’s got something to him.’”

Freeze, a college coach for 13 years, including five seasons at Ole Miss in which he beat Alabama twice, said Willis can make “every throw” and has the best arm strength of any player he’s ever coached. Coupled with his running ability, he said Willis has a skillset similar to Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, though he prefaced with, “I’m certainly not saying he’s ready to be in a sentence with those guys.”

In two seasons at Liberty, Willis completed 62.4% of his passes for 5,117 yards, 47 touchdowns with 18 interceptions. He also had 338 carries for 1,822 yards and 27 TDs for the Flames.

“His arm is dynamic,” said Quincy Avery, a top quarterback trainer who works with Willis. “He has an ability to extend plays and do so much with his legs that, as a young quarterback trying to figure things out, he’s going to have the ability to do some things that are going to allow him to be successful, even if he doesn’t understand every single defense you’re throwing at him.”

There’s the potential that made Willis a potential first-round pick – and there’s the concerns that caused him to fall to the Titans in the third round.

He took a lot of sacks at Liberty, finishing No. 1 in the FBS with 51 in 2021. The 18 interceptions came in 23 starts for the Flames.

Freeze said the sacks weren’t Willis' fault, proclaiming his team “just didn’t protect well” and if not for Willis, the sack numbers would’ve been “double.”

As for the interceptions, Freeze said there were some “bad ones.” But there were too many good reads and throws to be overly concerned, Freeze explained.

“You can take a cut-up of his two years (at Liberty) and you can pull those and certainly make your case to be negative with him,” said Freeze, “but I guarantee you I can pull 10 times that many where you say, ‘Oh, wow. What a throw.’”

Freeze described Willis’ growth as a passer at Liberty “transformational.” But his journey started at home in the Atlanta area, where he’s worked with McEvoy since transferring from Westlake High School – where Cam Newton attended – to Roswell ahead of his senior year. Avery entered the picture early in his college career.

In high school, building consistency in Willis’ throwing mechanics took priority. It was tightening up his upper-body arm motion. Tweaking his arm path to make it more efficient and free flowing. Making sure his full cleats were in the ground so he had a good base to generate consistent power.

In the pre-draft process, McEvoy and Avery built on the things he wasn’t asked to do at Liberty. They dove into NFL concepts, studying coverages he’d face at the next level.

Avery said the knock on Willis for playing in Freeze’s run-pass-option scheme is “overblown.”

“There aren’t a lot of guys in college who do necessarily the same things that they’re going to be doing in the NFL,” said Avery. “It’s just, ‘How quickly are they going to pick up the playbook?’ And I think he is really smart and will be fine.”

Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze looks towards his team during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. Mississippi won 27-14. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze looks towards his team during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. Mississippi won 27-14. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

But Freeze said he’ll need to speed up his reads, as he’ll face faster and more athletic defenders at the NFL level. McEvoy wants to see his consistency as a pocket passer improve; knowing when to use his athleticism versus when to just check the ball down and take the yards he can get.

After operating primarily out of the shotgun at Liberty, Willis will play more under center for the Titans. He had exchange issues on the first day of rookie minicamp earlier this month, though it was clean the following day.

“I just expect myself to come to work every day as long as God wakes me up,” Willis said at rookie minicamp. “Just come out here and enjoy myself and try to be the best player I can be. Fight through the mistakes, fight through the successes.

“Either way it goes, you got to stay calm, cool and collected.”

Titans quarterback Malik Willis (7) talks with offensive coordinator Todd Downing during a Rookie Mini-Camp practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Friday, May 13, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.
Titans quarterback Malik Willis (7) talks with offensive coordinator Todd Downing during a Rookie Mini-Camp practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Friday, May 13, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

‘It’s a game at the end of the day’

Willis backed up Jarrett Stidham for two seasons at Auburn. Then he was the odd-man out in the competition to replace him in spring 2019, leading him to the transfer portal.

A three-star recruit in the 2017 class, Willis was listed as an “athlete” by major recruiting sites. Virginia Tech, where he initially committed, wouldn’t give him a chance to play quarterback, according to Ford. People constantly told him to try receiver and defensive back. He wasn’t a quarterback full-time until his senior year of high school.

But Willis always knew he was a quarterback.

“You got somebody who plays receiver or plays safety or plays something (else) that you could put at quarterback and win. But I was the opposite,” explained Willis. “I was a quarterback that could play (other positions). … So it wasn’t really a conviction. It’s an identity. It’s what I am.”

What he is, too, is a “kid at heart,” Freeze said.

Like how he maneuvered the question about his relationship with Tannehill, who had made headlines saying it’s not his job to mentor Willis.

When first asked about Tannehill’s comments, Willis said “what comment?” before laughing and saying “everything’s cool,” d what had become a hot-button narrative in the NFL.

“It’s a game at the end of the day,” said Willis. “I mean, it’s a very important game to a lot of people, but it’s a game at the end of the day. You go through way worse stuff in life. You have to understand that and be resilient as a person outside of football. I feel like when it comes to football, you just have to be strong minded and understand it’s not your identity.

“I feel like you’re supposed to use this platform for something,” he continued. “I use it for God.”

Ben Arthur covers the Tennessee Titans for The USA TODAY Network. Contact him at barthur@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @benyarthur.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Who is Tennessee Titans' Malik Willis? We asked trainers, old coaches