The Detroit News is counting down the top 15 players on its list of Blue Chip football recruits. Today: No. 4 Khari Willis of Jackson Lumen Christi.
Jackson — For the first time, Khari Willis focused entirely on football this past summer. And it paid off with his best season at Jackson Lumen Christi — and one of the best years for a running back in state history.
Willis rushed for 2,810 yards — seventh best in state history — and 31 touchdowns to earn a spot on The Detroit News Dream Team.
Willis talked about his senior season, which included a 420-yard rushing effort on 50 carries in his final game, a regional loss to eventual Division 6 state champion Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central.
"I wanted to establish myself as the ultimate leader both on and off the field, and then I wanted to be the most dominant back in the state as far as yards per carry, and I felt like that spoke for itself," said Willis, a 6-foot, 210-pounder who averaged 12 yards per carry. "I wanted to break records and show I was bigger, faster and stronger to help my team."
Willis focused on football last summer after playing AAU basketball in past years. He got offers in basketball from Dayton and several Mid-American Conference schools.
"This was my first season ever training for football," Willis said. "I was focused on basketball before. It was my sport and I was getting offers from Dayton my sophomore year, then Detroit and a lot of MAC schools, Western, Central. But, then, I fell in love with football, starting getting offers and felt I had better opportunities with the game of football."
Willis bulked up from 188 pounds at the end of his junior year to 215 his senior year while getting faster, running a 4.5 40.
"There would be times when there were 10 guys in the box (my junior year) and we were still running the ball, so I felt like I had to be able to carry the load," he said. "So I would have to be able to take hits and deliver hits, and I did."
So, what did Willis do to get stronger?
"I did a lot of weight training, conditioning, really everything to get ready," Willis said. "I was hitting 225 three times (bench press) before on a good day, then worked my way up to 14 or 15 reps prior to my senior year."
Willis went to Michigan State's Elite camp this past June, working out with the defensive backs as a safety. He committed June 14 and said he will play wherever Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio wants him on the field.
"He kind of played that underdog role for a few years and I feel like that's how I've been all my life so I fit that role perfectly," said Willis, talking of Dantonio. "I feel like I've been an underdog because I come from a smaller town so I have to work twice as hard to get half the attention, but that's cool because I can do it.
"When I went up there I loved Coach Dantonio's style. I love the swagger up there. I love how they do things there. It's real. He puts everything on the table. He just expects you to go hard, to get better and improve. They always talk about getting better and I feel that's the thing I needed to hear."
DETROIT NEWS BLUE CHIP COUNTDOWN
No. 4 Khari Willis, S, Jackson Lumen Christi (Michigan State)
No. 5 David Moorman, OL, Northville (Wisconsin)
No. 6 John Kelly, RB, Oak Park (Tennessee)
No. 7 Kyonta Stallworth, OL, Detroit King (Michigan State)
No. 8 Tyson Smith, DB, Orchard Lake St. Mary's (Michigan State)
No. 9 Tyriq Thompson, LB Detroit King (Michigan State)
No. 10 Grant Perry, WR, Birmingham Brother Rice (Northwestern)
No. 11 Dior Johnson, S, Southfield (Minnesota)
No. 12 Alex Grace, LB, Saginaw Swan Valley (Western Michigan)
No. 13 John Keenoy, OL, East Kentwood (Western Michigan)
No. 14 Cole Chewins, TE, Clarkston (Michigan State)
No. 15 Mike Danna, DE, Warren De La Salle (Central Michigan)