Photo by Matthew Mitchell, MSU Athletic Communications
Willis already a major contributor with Michigan State football team
By Mike Moore
When he first got to Michigan State as a freshman safety, the goal was to maybe see the field on special teams.
If that wasn’t in the cards his first year, Khari Willis was ready to be redshirted and absorb as much as he could with the Spartans’ football team.
A few months removed from that initial objective, Willis stood in the end zone at Michigan Stadium, the screaming silence of more than 100,000 fans surrounding him in utter disbelief.
And beneath him lay Jalen Watts-Jackson.
“And all I could say was ‘you just won us the game,’” Willis recalled.
From the practice fields of Lumen Christi, the main star at Withington Stadium, to front and center in one of the most memorable Michigan State-Michigan games ever.
It’s been a wild ride for Willis the past 12 months or so, but as the former Titans standout put it, “it’s been a dream come true.”
“When the season started, I expected to come in here and be redshirted or see limited action (on special teams),” Willis said when reached by phone following Tuesday’s practice. “Fortunately, I was able to pick up on things. I’m still picking up on things, and learning from some guys. … It’s worked out for me. I’ve been blessed.”
He was patient, watching from the sidelines the first three weeks.
He saw his first action against in a 30-10 victory against Central Michigan Sept. 26, earning credit for a broken-up pass late in the fourth quarter.
He saw time in close wins against Purdue and Rutgers, before injuries thrust him into his first career start against Michigan in last Saturday’s thriller.
“It was amazing. From the moment we walked into the stadium we were hated, and I loved every minute of it,” Willis said. “It was such a fun game. It was crazy. We were able to shut the Big House up a little.”
As for his first start coming in Ann Arbor against the Wolverines?
“No bigger game to have that start against,” he said.
But in the game’s waning seconds, it was Michigan, ranked No. 12 and favored by more than a touchdown, leading 23-21.
A fourth down brought about what so many assumed was a simple punt to victory.
Willis took his spot on the left side of the defense, ready to rush and just maybe cause a little chaos.
Fans of both schools know what transpired, and as the clock ran out, the Spartans were celebrating a 38-yard touchdown return by Watts-Jackson after Michigan punter Blake O’Neill bobbled the snap.
“It was amazing,” Willis said of the play. (watch it here. Willis is No. 27) He rushed off the left side of the defensive line, nearly recovered the ball, then threw a small block as Watts-Jackson returned the fumble.
“It was the best play I’ve ever been a part of. The best I’ll probably ever be a part of.”
So is it hard to believe he’s gone from a two-way standout on a small Catholic school in Jackson to a starting safety on one of the top-ranked programs in all of college football?
“Blessings on top of blessings,” Willis said simply.
He said he’s done his best to keep up with the Titans, who are 6-2 and headed back to the playoffs for the 18th consecutive season.
“I try to watch (online) every game they play,” he said. “I’ll be watching this weekend, and I hope to be back for the playoffs.”
First things first, Willis is expected to make his second career-start this Saturday against Indiana.
“I want to keep contributing to the team in a positive manner,” he said. “Whether it’s starting, on the sidelines, or whatever, I have to keep that positive energy.”
The quiet, modest star from Lumen Christi has certainly spread his wings a bit north in East Lansing.
Yet, it’s clear not much has changed.
There’s an unwavering passion for the game, a desire to succeed, and the need to help his team win in every way possible.
As a redshirt plan that never developed, or a lead blocker in one of the craziest plays the sport of college football has ever known.
It’s a career at its infancy, starting to blossom with a clean slate of potential awaiting.
From the practice fields of Jackson, to the biggest of stages in East Lansing, Willis’ star continues to shine.
And few can really be surprised.
Mike Moore is a play-by-play commentator and Sports Writer for JTV Sports. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s also the author of ‘Love, Defined; A Dedication to the Love, Sacrifice, and Magic of Motherhood.’