East Lansing — Khari Willis has seen the highs and the lows of major college football.
Brian Lewerke has been there, too. Joe Bachie’s got a solid handle on it, as well.
So it’s no surprise those three were named Michigan State’s captains for the 2018 season, one that begins next Friday when Utah State visits Spartan Stadium.
“I think they’ll do an outstanding job,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “I think it’s a great representation of our football team.”
That’s because they understand what goes into being a championship-winning team, as well as what can happen when things quickly go the wrong way.
Both Willis and Lewerke were in their first season on campus in 2015 when Michigan State went on the road to beat Ohio State, knocked off Iowa in the Big Ten championship game and reached the College Football Playoff. Willis played and even saw his first start at safety that season while Lewerke redshirted.
A year later, Bachie arrived, meaning all three were immersed in the misery that was a three-win season, one that had many wondering if Michigan State’s run of success was coming to an end. And all three were integral parts of the seven-win turnaround of 2017, a performance that has many expecting the Spartans to once again push to win a Big Ten title.
Those experiences — good and bad — have put this group of captains in a unique position.
“I would hope so,” Willis said. “I think going through those things (is important) as a team. There are a lot of other guys who could have been captain for us. What we went through in our time being here four or five years is definitely gonna play a role in the things that we know.”
The Spartans in 2015 were known for their great chemistry. Maybe not as physically talented as the 2013 team that won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl, the ’15 team managed to win huge road games and find a spot in the playoffs.
“We saw (leadership) at the highest level,” Willis said. “We saw the bar set, the standard set. The leadership of Shilique Calhoun, Riley (Bullough), Connor Cook, Darien Harris — you saw a high level of leadership and I think we’ve tried to adopt that. We were young and maybe didn’t know what we were seeing, but you look back and you understand you saw something special and you try to duplicate it in your own way.”
“During our senior speeches what they mention is the 2015 Big Ten championship,” Lewerke said. “So, they know what it takes to get there. I’ve been there and know what it takes, so we have that experience to try and take this to that level.”
Nearly as important, it seems, is going through 2016 and coming out the other end.
Willis credited the coaching staff for setting the groundwork for the bounce-back in 2017, but the leadership of that season’s captains — Chris Frey and Brian Allen — was also critical.
“We were a new group but our coaches had been around,” Willis said. “They know what championship effort looks like. In ’16 we didn’t have it. They wanted to make sure we got back to it. … Our captains, Brian and Chris, stepped up and had to fix it.”
The charge for this group of captains is to keep another 2016 from happening.
It seems like the most logical group. Dantonio said the voting was clear – these three were the clear-cut choices and that a “nobody was close to being a fourth.”
Willis was the easy choice. The senior got his first starting experience as a freshman and has steadily worked his way into one of the top safeties in the Big Ten. In July, he addressed the conference on behalf of the players at the Big Ten Kickoff luncheon.
“He’s got words that some people can’t spit out,” Bachie said of Willis. “You heard that at the Big Ten media days. He’s a special person, a special individual. It’s an honor to be named alongside him.”
Bachie was named the team’s MVP last season after collecting 100 tackles.
“He was thrust into a playing position early and he’s been a leader ever since he’s been on the field,” Lewerke said of Bachie. “Whether he had a title or not he’s been a guy I’ve looked up to a ton. I’m honored to be able to be a captain with him as a junior.”
Lewerke is coming off a season in which he gained 3,352 total yards as a sophomore, the second-most in program history.
“He’s a competitor and I wouldn’t want anyone else in the country as my quarterback,” Bachie said of Lewerke.
Michigan State will again have a fourth game-day captain each week that rotates from the 12-player leadership group called the Eagle Council.