Mobile, Ala. — For football players, working on special teams is yeoman’s work.
It’s how many young players without a starting job on offense or defense carve out a meaningful role on the team. And whether it’s at the college or professional level, rarely is a player eager to go back to working on special teams after they’re earned a more prominent spot on the roster.
Not former Michigan State safety Khari Willis. The captain, who started the final 26 games of his college career, asked the team’s coaching staff to be put back on the punt coverage unit late last season.
For Willis, a senior, he knew his time at Michigan State was coming to an end and he didn’t want to leave any opportunity on the table where he could help his team win by making a play.
"I feel that’s how you earn your keep, on any level, really," Willis said. "It’s something I’ll embrace and something that will be expected of me wherever I land."
That passion for the game, and his commitment to his team and winning, is likely to make a strong impression this week as Willis participates in the Senior Bowl and gets his first meaningful face-to-face time with a number of potential future employers.
Willis’ background is well-known to those who have followed his career with the Spartans. He's one of 10 children, a fact he said helped mold him into the leader he’s become.
“It definitely makes you tough,” Willis said. “It helped me deal with multiple personalities, which helped me with the leadership role because all my siblings are different. Everybody is different. …It’s definitely helped me to learn to shut up and work, learn there are some things I can’t control.”
A community governance advocacy major at Michigan State, Willis was selected by coach Mark Dantonio to deliver the keynote speech at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon last summer. And if Willis didn’t have an opportunity at a pro football career, he’d said he'd probably attend law school and pursue a master’s degree. He envisions working a job where he could help people in need.
But that’s on hold. At the Senior Bowl, Willis wants to show he can be the type of versatile safety that thrives in the NFL.
“I need to display it all,” said Willis, a Jackson Lumen Christi product. “I need to display tackling, hitting with the right leverage, proper foot, proper shoulder, and obviously covering. It’s no secret you’ve got to be able to cover to play in this league. My tape speaks to that, but I feel that’s definitely a statement I can make this week, as well.”
Willis measured in at the event at 5-foot-11, 213 pounds, a little bigger than six-time Pro Bowler Earl Thomas, who Willis said he models his game after.
“He’s a fierce competitor and he flies to the ball,” Willis said. “That’s something I try to emulate.”
For the Spartans, Willis was asked to line up deep, in the box and occasionally on the line, pressing a receiving assignment. That well-rounded experience should only ease his transition to the next level. In 13 games for the Spartans last season, he recorded 84 tackles and 10 pass breakups.
The Senior Bowl represents the next step to achieving his NFL dream.
“It’s a dream come true,” Willis said. “A lot of players wish they could play in this game. A lot of them were probably good enough to play in this game. To be selected was an honor, and I wasn’t going to deny the privilege. I want to come out here and show I’m not scared to compete with the best, I’m not scared to come in and learn a defense that I’ve never played before, learn it in one week and go out and play ball.”