Hugh Freeze thinks Tennessee Titans are 'great' for Malik Willis. I've started to agree | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean
View Comments

Three years at Liberty and Hugh Freeze still sounds a lot like that ol' coach who won a lot at Ole Miss.

In his understated, “aw shucks” way, Freeze fields a complicated question – and the biggest one the NFL had about his ex-quarterback – on how Malik Willis will adjust from Liberty's relatively undemanding offense to a pro system with the Tennessee Titans.

“I’m a high school coach at heart,” Freeze begins. “I had to change every year with what our kids could do.”

If he’s making the NFL sound like brain surgery to his grade-school biology class, you soon see it's playfully deliberate.

Liberty Flames head coach Hugh Freeze walks down the sideline during the first quarter against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

“I don’t get to watch a lot of NFL football because of our schedule. I did get to watch the playoffs,” Freeze goes on. “I didn’t see anybody that could consistently protect the quarterback. These D-lines are so dang good and they’re so talented, it might be to your advantage to have a guy that has the skillset like Malik that can make the first guy miss and extend plays.”

Look around the NFL. He’s not wrong. 

It's understandable, too, when he casually throws out the names Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen. He’s careful to note that Willis doesn’t yet deserve to be in the same sentence with those pros.

“But his skill set is similar,” Freeze says. “I’m really excited. I think Tennessee was a great place for him.”

This could have gone differently, and Freeze knows it. Willis could have been a first-rounder, being asked to take over a franchise immediately. Instead, the Titans lucked into him in the third round. They have Ryan Tannehill as their incumbent starter. So they could offer a redshirt year, which many believe Willis needs in the NFL. 

DRAFT CLASS: Which Tennessee Titans rookies will make the most impact?

SCHEDULE:Predicting each game for the Tennessee Titans in 2022

ESTES:An important part of what Ryan Tannehill said about Malik Willis isn't getting enough attention

When Freeze calls the Titans a good fit, perhaps that's a big reason.

But there’s more that he knows about Willis that we’ve yet to discover in Nashville. We will soon enough, though.

Before Willis takes a snap in an NFL regular-season game, his direction with this franchise is already going to be cemented behind the scenes by how he handles being Tannehill’s backup – and not being given a true opportunity to compete for a starting job. Because that’s the reality. Barring an unforeseen injury, Willis wasn’t brought here to replace Tannehill in 2022.

After that, we’ll see.

Beyond his years

Same as his new team, I’m still getting to know Willis. Long way to go yet, but for me personally, two moments already stood out from his interactions with media in Nashville.

The night the Titans drafted Willis in the third round, it finally ended what had to be a humbling ordeal for him. He attended the draft in Las Vegas, clearly expecting to go in the first round. When it didn’t happen, the next night he rented out a bowling alley – that’s how many friends and family he had on hand – and watched as the second round passed before the Titans called.

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.

In the midst of celebration and relief, I asked Willis how difficult the previous 24 hours had been. Most would have talked about negative motivation. About anger or disrespect fueling him. About a chip on his shoulder. 

Instead, Willis took a path least traveled: “It hasn't really been difficult, because at the end of the day, when you don't have control over something, it's not something you can really get mad at.”

Can’t say I expected such a sage remark from a 22-year-old, but it was the same cool style with which Willis later shrugged off the silly – yet very real – flare-up over Tannehill’s not-my-job-to-be-his-mentor comment when asked by Titans reporters last week during rookie camp.

“What comment?” Willis replied jokingly.

“It was never anything negative. Ryan’s a good dude, man.”

Well done, sir. Two tricky topics for any veteran quarterback, each diffused instantly and expertly. By a rookie who didn't ask for either situation.

Yet Willis just seemed so noticeably …


Why it works here

A calm mentality is a gift, frankly, but it can be a double-edged sword for a football coach. While coaches love a short memory and a quarterback who can block out noise and distractions in the spotlight, excessive detachment can also come across as not caring enough. Especially at quarterback.

Back to Freeze. He's wrestling with this balance when he stops himself while saying the “only thing … that would drive me crazy with Malik sometimes was that nonchalant— but it’s not that. That’s not the word.”

Freeze goes on in explanation: “He has this attractive humility about him to where it really never was about him. That doesn’t mean he’s not competitive. … He’s got that rare quality in today’s time to where he’s not seeking others’ approval.”

Go read that last line again. I think it'll be important for the Titans.

They took a calculated risk by inviting the possibility of one of football’s most notoriously explosive in-house distractions into a harmonious locker room. The NFL’s media craves offseason soap operas, and no narrative is more delicious than a QB controversy.

Nothing Tannehill has said at any point as the Titans’ starter has been as widely parsed and rehashed as his “mentor” line about Willis.

That can happen when a team drafts a highly regarded QB prospect behind a starter whose job security has become, let's say, mildly shaky.

Tannehill’s starting role is not in question at the moment.

It meant something that Willis was drafted, though.

And it will mean more how patiently Willis handles the next year or more. Freeze says Willis understands what's 

“At worst case, he learns from Ryan Tannehill. At best case, he plays some,” Freeze says. “And the great thing about Malik: If you tell him that he’s not ready to play, he’s going to have the same response as he would if told him he was ready to play. ‘Great. What can I do to help the team?’ …

“I think it’s a good fit for him.”

The more I get to know Malik Willis, the more I’m starting to agree.

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes. 

View Comments