'They got it': MSU's Willis makes big impression with speech

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State safety Khari Willis speaks during Big Ten Conference NCAA college football media days in Chicago.

Chicago — When the crowd rose to its feet, Khari Willis knew his message hit home.

The Michigan State senior addressed the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon on Tuesday on behalf of the conference’s players, and when his roughly eight-minute speech that focused on being a light in the community was finished, the standing ovation took over the ballroom.

“I didn’t know I did a good job until I got the ovation,” Willis said. “Then I was like, ‘OK, they got it.’ ”

Plenty went into Willis giving his speech. First, he was nominated by Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, and once he was selected, there was work to be done. It came in small spurts initially but over the last few weeks it got more intense.

His final touches came when he practiced in front of the team.

“They were very accepting of it. A lot of them related to it,” Willis said. “It’s harder to speak in front of them especially with Justin Layne in the crowd. He knows me and knows how to make me laugh. They told me to slow down but they were appreciative of it.”

As Willis walked off the podium, he received handshakes from Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Dantonio. Penn State’s James Franklin hugged Willis and “told me I killed it,” Willis recalled.

More: It's official: 'Forgiven' LB Jon Reschke back at MSU

He was the first Spartan to address the luncheon since Kirk Cousins in 2011 and he made a similar impact. Willis began talking about growing up in Jackson as one of 10 kids and how his mother and father pushed him and his siblings to be a difference in the community.

Willis lives it today, volunteering his time at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Jackson, taking part in the Lansing Promise, visiting elementary schools and even going to prisons to talk with childhood friends to offer something positive in their lives.

He is also a nominee for the American Football Coaches Association's Good Works Team and hopes to get his law degree when he’s done playing with plans to become a defense attorney.

Willis talked about it all on Tuesday and hopes it leads others to do the same.

"We can go back to where that kid is facing the decision making of joining a gang, maybe some drug-related violence, activities and things of that nature,” Willis said. “We can go back, and we can give back. It doesn't necessarily have to be a lot of time, it doesn't necessarily have to be a lot of money, but there's things that we can do on a day-to-day basis. And, I can prove to you that we can be an example for the future kids to come.”

It was exactly the sort of performance Dantonio expected.

“He is an on-point person,” Dantonio said. “He’s just a person you want to be around and you gravitate to. He is a faith-based person and that rings true. He’s a guy you root for. He has no preconceived notions of himself and is trying to do a good job with what God gave him.”

Major explores possible return

Freshman wide receiver Julian Major is on the Spartans roster released on Tuesday, but his status with the team remains up in the air. Dantonio said at Big Ten media days that Major is “in flux” after enrolling in January but then leaving school in the spring.

“Julian Major is in flux, you could say,” Dantonio said. “I think the thing when talking about Julian is that when young people come midyear they face challenges being away from home for the first time, school hits them in the teeth. You know, 12 hours of academics, you’ve got football, you’ve got lifting, you’ve got things you’re dealing with. In the springtime he stepped away because he just wasn’t ready to deal with it so he stepped away and went back home.”

Major was a three-star recruit from Penn Hills High School in Pittsburgh. He was one of seven players who enrolled early from the 2018 class and took part in spring practice before leaving school.

However, he’s had a change of heart and is attempting to return.

“He wants to come back,” Dantonio said. “He's got to transition back into it, not from an athletic perspective, but from a university perspective. That will get weighed out here in July here yet.

Just watching

It’s that time of year as the national college football awards put out their watch lists.

On Tuesday, fifth-year senior guard David Beedle was on the watch list for the Outland Trophy, given annually to the top interior lineman in the country, while junior linebacker Joe Bachie was on the watch list for the Nagurski Trophy, awarded to the top defensive player.

Bachie has also been named to the watch list for the Butkus Award (top linebacker) and the Bednarik Award (top defensive player) while safety David Dowell is on the watch list for the Thorpe Award (top defensive back). Quarterback Brian Lewerke is on the watch lists for the Davey O’Brien Award (top quarterback) and the Maxwell Award (top player) while running back LJ Scott is on the Maxwell list as well as the watch list for the Doak Walker Award (top running back).

Stairway to Heave

Lewerke admitted it wasn’t that catchy a slogan, but this year’s mantra for the Spartans is “Heave.”

It was Dantonio’s idea after the team was competing in a tug of war as part of conditioning. That’s when linebacker Andrew Dowell yelled for his team to heave, and that got everyone “pulling in unison, in one direction and I said that’s our mantra because we have some heavy lifting to do around here.

“I can see shirts now that say, ‘Heave.’ It’s a good one. Write it down.”