Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, October 11, 2017
No Big Ten team was a bigger disappointment last year than Michigan State, which finished 3-9 overall and 1-8 in the Big Ten a year after winning the league title and earning a bid to the College Football Playoff.
This season, the Spartans have been one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten, off to a 4-1 start (2-0 Big Ten) as they head to Minnesota this weekend.
A big key to Michigan State's success has been the defense, which is led in part by junior safety Khari Willis. The Spartans are No. 2 in the Big Ten in total defense (258.6 ypg), No. 3 in rush defense (97.2 ypg) and No. 2 in pass defense (161.4 ypg). The pass rush has made big strides for MSU, too, as the Spartans have 13 sacks on the season after having only 11 all of last season. They also average two more tackles for loss per game compared to 2016.
The 6-0, 215-pound Willis and the defense were at their best in last week's 14-10 win at Michigan, MSU's eighth vs. the Wolverines in the last 10 meetings. The Spartans had four sacks and six tackles for loss against the Wolverines, as the victory moved MSU into the Top AP 25 at No. 21.
I caught up with Willis, a Jackson, Michigan, native who starred at Lumen Christi, as he prepped for the struggling Golden Gophers.
Q: What's the difference between this season and last year?
A: We are trying to play fast and focusing on our assignments. We are feeding off our each other's energy. We know we can get better, which is exciting. And we look to improve each week. We have scrapped what happened last year. We have some new players, veterans and young guys who are playing well for us. We have a new identity and image.
Q: Who are the leaders of the defense?
A: Our captain Chris Frey leads us, as well as Joe Bachie. Myself in the back end, Matt Morrissey ? Raequan (Williams) helps lead guys up front, as well as Kenny Willekes. We have a lot of leaders, talking and communicating and helping our young guys.
Q: Who is the best cover guy in your secondary?
A: We all probably would say ourselves. We have each other's back.
Q: Who is the one guy on your defense you wouldn't want to be hit by?
A: Joe Bachie hits pretty hard. He's pretty big, too.
Q: Who is the fastest player in the secondary?
A: It's between Justin Layne and Josiah Scott. Tyson Smith is fast, too. We have a lot of blazers in the secondary.
Q: Who is the hardest player to cover on your offense when you scrimmage?
A: There are quite a few. Felton Davis and Darrell Stewart are good at what they do. Little (Hunter) Rison is pretty shifty, as well.
Q: Who is the best dunker on the team?
A: Justin Layne is a really good dunker. And Jalen Watts-Jackson can jump pretty high.
Q: If you were putting together a three-on-three hoops team, which two players off your roster would you select?
A: Justin Layne and Trishton Jackson. They have some skills. Trishton can shoot and Justin can slash a bit. And I do a little bit of both.
Q: Do you have a nickname?
A: People call me "Big Guy." When I was a baby, I was big, so that's when it began. The doctor said: 'Wow, that's a big guy.' And it stuck. My family still calls me that.
Q: What's your go-to place to eat in East Lansing?
A: I like Smokey Bones. The smoked wings are good. I get a combo, with smoked wings, pulled pork and I pour barbeque sauce all over it. And I get some broccoli, too.
Q: How did you celebrate last week's win at Michigan?
A: I went home. My family came over to my house. We sat around and hung out a bit. And I went to sleep. But I took a lot of pictures with Paul Bunyan.
Q: What was the bus ride back to campus like from Ann Arbor?
A: It was very exciting. You felt that special moment with your teammates. You feel a bond, and it was special. Laughing, joking, having fun, sharing memories of the game. It felt good. The best bus ride I had since 2015.