NASHVILLE – Malik Willis knew it wouldn't be easy, and it wasn't.
Now, the Titans quarterback heads into his first full NFL offseason knowing exactly what he needs to do to get better.
Willis plans to learn from his mistakes.
"Nobody is perfect. So, you just always have to learn from whatever mistakes you make," Willis said as he cleaned out his locker earlier this week. "You see guys making mistakes that have been playing quarterback for 10 years. I have been playing quarterback for a year (in the NFL). So, it is understanding to learn from those mistakes and not get too high or too low."
Willis, a third-round draft pick in the 2022 NFL Draft out of Liberty, wasn't supposed to play this season.
The Titans planned to let him sit back and learn – and develop – during his rookie season while backing up starter Ryan Tannehill, who hadn't missed a game with the team since taking over as the starter in 2019.
Tannehill, however, suffered an ankle injury back in October, which forced Willis into action.
While Willis had his moments – he guided the Titans to a win in his first NFL start at Houston – he also had his share of struggles while playing in an offense he did his best to adapt to in a hurry.
"We always want to go right to where we want to be," Willis said as he looked back at the year. "Understanding that (the Titans) had me coming in, thinking, a guy who has been playing RPOs, a whole bunch of drop-back shots (in college), that's not necessarily what we do here. It's not necessarily this offense. And it's just understanding how we go from one thing and get to another. … You don't go straight from running RPOs and mostly shotgun to being under center with Derrick Henry behind you and me having to feed him. So, you have to understand how the process goes and (take) the steps while learning. It's like you're learning, you're learning, setback. You're learning, you're learning, setback. It's the steps, taking the long way."
Titans quarterback Pat O'Hara said it's all part of the development of Willis as an NFL quarterback.
"That's the whole process of training and development that we've always known," O'Hara said. "This is just a part of the process. Like I tell him, 'This is part of the journey for him. It's part of the journey. You can't take the elevator, you have to take the stairs', you know what I mean? "You've gotta work at it and he knows that. This is a process that is gonna take time."
Willis ended up playing in eight games, with three starts, for the Titans in 2022.
He finished the season the season 31-of-61 (50.8%) for 276 yards with zero touchdown passes and three interceptions, with a passer rating of 42.8. Willis also ran for 123 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.
At the end of the season, the Titans elected to go with Josh Dobbs – not Willis – in the final two games.
At his season-ending press conference, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel discussed his message to Willis moving forward.
"The message is to continue to improve, continue to develop, continue to work on those things that we have continued to discuss, whether it be with being able to progress through, being able to recognize rotation, coverages, just overall knowledge of what he is doing each and every day, which is what he did on the show team most of the year," Vrabel said. "It is to come back with a great attitude, with knowledge of what we are doing offensively, be in shape. That is what I told all the young guys, that this isn't a six-month job. If they don't work harder between the next four months than they did to get here, there is a whole new crop of players that are waiting to come into that spot. That is the nature of this business and that is not a threat to anybody, that is just what it is. You look at the development of Teair Tart over his first, second, third year, whereas with Jayden Peevy, if you don't do anything and you don't work any harder, then we've just got another Peevy that'll just come through the pipeline. I was just explaining it to him."
Willis said he knows he needs to improve on a lot heading into Year 2, from his footwork, to being on time with throws to staying in rhythm. He needs to make quicker decisions, and get the ball out.
Willis acknowledged he created pressure for himself by drifting in the pocket.
"Just being able to step up and find guys," Willis said. "There were moments where I did that, and moments where I didn't do that."
More than anything, Willis knows he needs to get better.
The process of doing that has already begun.
"You can say what you want to, but it's my first year in the NFL – I think I progressed a whole bunch," Willis said. "You may not think so, but I learned a lot. So just having that film and those reps. I'd never been under center before I got to the NFL. I got over 1,000 reps of being under center (games and practices) and that is very helpful. That is what it is about, repetition and building that muscle memory."