'They wanted me': Colts trade up to grab Michigan State S Khari Willis in fourth round

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

When the Indianapolis Colts looked at Khari Willis, they saw a player they wanted.

They wanted the former Michigan State safety so much, in fact, they traded up 20 spots to get him, selecting the Spartan captain with seventh pick of the fourth round of the NFL Draft on Saturday, the 109th selection overall.

Khari Willis

“Yeah, it indicated that they wanted me and they wanted me early and they didn’t want to take the chance of not getting me,” Willis said on a conference call Saturday. “That definitely shows on their part they have interest to trade up 20 spots to get me. I think that’s a tremendous blessing and speaks to how they think of me. I think we think the same about each other. I think it’s going to be a great career, a great relationship.”

Willis became the second Spartan to be selected in this year’s draft after cornerback Justin Layne was taken in the third round on Friday by the Pittsburgh Steelers. That makes nine Michigan State defensive backs that have been drafted in the coach Mark Dantonio era.

A native of Jackson, Willis earned his first start as a true freshman against Michigan in 2015 and finished his career playing in 46 games, including 30 starts. He ended his career with 26 straight starts at safety and was voted a team captain as a senior. Willis recorded 196 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, along with four interceptions and 16 pass break-ups in his career.

In 2018, the 5-foot-11, 213-pounder earned second-team All-Big Ten honors by Pro Football Focus and was third-team pick by the media. He recorded a career-high 84 tackles, 10 pass breakups and two interceptions for the Spartans as a senior, including a career-high 15 stops against Ohio State.

“Khari really did it all for us,” Dantonio said. “He started games for us all four years and played a lot on special teams. He’s not only tough and competitive but has a lot of football intelligence and has proven himself as a great leader. He was a point guard in high school and is extremely quick. He’s also an excellent tackler with good ball skills. Khari is everything you want as a person and as a leader on your football team.”

The fact the Colts moved up 20 spots in the fourth round to select Willis shows they had a high grade on him, NFL Network analyst Peter Schrager said.

“They moved up 20 spots to take him, that tells you what they think about him,” Schrager said. “It means it’s someone you had a Day 1 or Day 2 grade on him and he falls to them here.”

While Willis’ stock improved throughout his senior season and during workouts leading up to the draft, he was already known as a leader and high-character player that would fit well in the locker room.

He was a three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection and graduated with a bachelor's degree in December 2018 as an interdisciplinary studies in social science major, with an emphasis on community governance & advocacy. He was named a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, known as the “Academic Heisman,” and was one of 10 finalists for the Senior CLASS Award.

“I think that’s very important. That’s something I pride my hat on being a leader in the secondary,” Willis said. “Trying to make everybody around me better is something that my dad instilled in me since I was playing point guard playing basketball at a young age.

“I think that kind of translated over as I developed into a defensive player, especially trying to be one of the top defenses in the country and now the top defense in the league. I am very excited to go and try to be a leader here in Indianapolis.”

Willis and Layne were the only Spartans selected. Both running back LJ Scott and wide receiver Felton Davis did not get selected as each is trying to overcome injury concerns. Scott was in and out of the lineup with an ankle problem while Davis ruptured his Achilles against Michigan on Oct. 20 and is just now getting back to full workouts.

Other Michigan State players that did not get drafted and are hoping to sign as free agents include offensive lineman David Beedle, tight end Matt Sokol, linebacker Andrew Dowell and linebacker Jon Reschke.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau