Spartans freshmen Willis, Miller take well to big stage
East Lansing — When Mark Dantonio was recruiting Khari Willis and Grayson Miller, he had an idea he was after something special.
He might not have been able to guess they would make their first career starts in the same game as true freshmen against Michigan. But understanding each would fit in quickly seemed clear.
Yet, Dantonio never hesitated.
There was plenty of uncertainty at safety last weekend. Fifth-year senior RJ Williamson was out with a torn biceps muscle and sophomore Montae Nicholson was struggling. And, junior Demetrious Cox moved back to cornerback because of injuries.
Enter Willis and Miller.
Some mistakes were made, but there were flashes. And, both were on the field for the final play when Jalen Watts-Jackson scored the winning touchdown. In fact, Miller forced Michigan punter Blake O'Neill to fumble.
"They did a great job," co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Harlon Barnett said. "It's what we expected them to do because they've shown well in practice and we always say the best players play. So they had been playing well in practice, doing a good job and showed they deserved the chance. We gave them that chance and they took advantage of it."
For Willis, the Jackson Lumen Christi High product, the big stage wasn't a big deal. He said he felt comfortable and dreamed about the opportunity.
That ability to deal with pressure was something Dantonio saw when Willis was a point guard drawing interest from mid-major programs.
"Khari played AAU teams all over the country," Dantonio said. "So he's not intimidated by the situation at all."
For Miller, son of Michigan State legend John Miller, it was a bit more of an unlikely path to East Lansing. Even with his pedigree, Miller had one FBS scholarship offer when he came to camp at Michigan State in June 2014.
He left with a scholarship.
"When he came here at camp, he had one scholarship offer — Western Kentucky," Dantonio said. "And we looked at him at camp and after he long-jumped 10-6 and (a vertical leap of) 37 inches and ran two 4.4s (in the 40), and then went outside and caught the ball and did the drills, and he was 6-21/2, 205, we thought, maybe we just ought to offer him a scholarship."
Both will continue to play a key role for the defense, which has had its issues against the pass. Michigan State is 10th in the Big Ten, allowing 231.4 yards.
But with Willis and Miller in last week, Michigan State gave up 168 passing yards to Michigan.
That unit will be tested today by Indiana, a team that pushed No. 1 Ohio State to the limit before losing by a touchdown, and scored 52 last week at Rutgers.
The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in total offense (478.9 yards) and passing offense (284 yards), averaging 34.1 points. Senior quarterback Nate Sudfeld is the top passer in the conference and threw for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns against Rutgers.
"It's fast-paced and the goal is to get you misaligned and lead to miscommunication, missed tackles and that type of stuff," Barnett said. "Sudfeld is an experienced quarterback in that offense, so he knows how to run it and make it go fast. It's gonna be a big challenge."
Youth will continue to be served, as well.
Freshman cornerback Tyson Smith is expected to play for the first time and could be joined by freshman Josh Butler.
They'll be sure to look to Miller and Willis for advice.
"There's a lot of different pressure that goes on," Miller said. "Everyone looks bigger and is a little faster. But at the end of the day it's just football. But Khari said it best — you hit, you tackle, you play the ball and then line up for the next play."
Dantonio no doubt has the right players in at safety, a tandem that could patrol the back end of the defense the next several years.
"Both those guys are very quick learners," Dantonio said. "And they are not intimidated by the situation and they are hungry."
Indiana at Michigan State
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Indiana 4-3 (0-3 Big Ten), No. 7 Michigan State 7-0 (3-0)
Line: Michigan State by 16
Series: Michigan State leads 44-15-2