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NASHVILLE – The last thing the Tennessee Titans want to do is take away Malik Willis’ play-making ability.

But as the rookie quarterback prepares for a big dose of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week – joint practices Wednesday and Thursday in addition to Saturday’s preseason game – coaches need him to show he can make those big plays as consistently with his arm as he can with his legs.

“You don’t want to take that type of skillset away from a player, but you’ve just kind of got to work through it to process,” quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara said. “I think the best thing for a player is just visual evidence of watching the tape, and then kind of the light bulb going on, and then you’re like, `Oh, okay, yeah.’

“So there’s a balance there that obviously (we’re continuing) to work through. This is a process, and there’s a patience level there to do that.”

After Willis rushed for a combined 1,822 yards and 27 touchdowns during his final two seasons at Liberty University, there was little doubt his elusiveness and yards after contact would mean he’d be an excellent runner on the NFL level.

Willis offered a first glimpse of that last Thursday when he ran four times for 21 yards and a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens. He actually scrambled five times versus Baltimore, which was tied for second-most among NFL quarterbacks in Week 1 of the preseason.

His challenge this week against the Buccaneers: Don’t revert to default mode – running the football – so quickly or so frequently.

How can Willis do that? One way is simply to pull the trigger faster in the passing game. To do so, he must process defenses faster and recognize receiver routes – and who is open – sooner.

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Willis’ hesitancy in the game against the Ravens was illustrated by a couple of stats:

• He took an average of 3.86 seconds to throw the football, per Pro Football Focus, the longest average of any quarterback thus far this preseason. Part of that can be credited to Willis’ ability to create time for himself in the pocket, but it was also clear he didn’t throw to some open receivers when he had opportunities.

• Willis is the only one of 82 NFL quarterbacks this preseason who hasn’t gotten rid of the football once in less than 2.5 seconds, per PFF. For comparison’s sake, almost 30 quarterbacks have thrown at least 10 passes in under 2.5 seconds.

There are a couple reasons why Willis isn’t cutting the football loose quickly enough.

The first is the radical transformation he’s making from Liberty, where he ran a read-option based offense for a smaller FBS program.

So when Willis drops back in the pocket against NFL defenses, it’s like trying to read a book in a different language.

“I would say that’s very common for a young quarterback, particularly if the offense you were in in the pros is drastically different than the offense you ran in college,” offensive coordinator Todd Downing said. “So some of these are the first live reps he’s seeing of these types of concepts. So naturally, there’s going to be a learning curve there, and I think Malik is working really hard to kind of gain that confidence and see things clearly, and throw on time.”

A second reason, as Willis explained earlier in training camp: His mind may be processing things in a hurry while in the pocket, but his feet aren’t always moving as fast. In other words, Willis has to wait an extra split second to get himself in proper throwing position. That can lead to freezing up.

“I think there are probably times that he got away with some things collegiately that he’s not going to get away with in the pros, or maybe the window is a little tighter than it was in college,” Downing said. “So tying his feet to his progressions, and helping the timing there and the decision-making, is going to be a major step in the process for him. I think he’s made strides there, and I think he’s continuing to work on that stuff, and I think he’s realizing he can trust that process.”

The quicker Willis shows an ability to master NFL timing in the passing game, the better his chances of capturing the Titans’ backup quarterback position.