Colts Have Confidence In Rookie Khari Willis To Hold It Down At Safety

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INDIANAPOLIS — Back in April, the Indianapolis Colts felt compelled to move up 20 spots to select safety Khari Willis early in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

At Michigan State, the Colts saw a player in Willis who had the athletic abilities to make plays all over the field, and the smarts and leadership abilities to rise the play of those around him.

And now, with top free safety Malik Hooker on the mend, the Colts will look for the rookie Willis to do the same for their defense for at least the next few weeks.

“Khari has been getting plenty of play time, but now with Malik being out for a little bit, Khari and his role is going to significantly increase,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said Monday. “Every indication we have from Khari is this guy is a ball player and he is ready for this opportunity.”

Willis was a two-time honorable mention All-Big Ten honoree at Michigan State, where in his last two seasons he combined to collect 155 tackles, four interceptions, 13 passes defensed and four sacks.

The Jackson, Mich., native played all over the field for the Spartans’ defense; his ability to diagnose plays and tackle made him effective in the box, but he also had the speed to cover deep into the secondary.

“That was the good thing about his evaluation — you got to see him do everything,” Colts area scout Chad Henry said of Willis this offseason. “You got to see him play back. You got to see him play nickel on the slot. Got to see him man cover tight ends. This guy is exceptionally smart and you can see it not only in his play, reflected through who he is when you talk to him, but I mean, you can see him on film telling other guys what to do.

“He's the guy the more you watch, the more you appreciate him, the more you like who he is.”

The Colts put Willis high up on their draft board, and even considered taking him in the third round of this year’s draft before deciding to send their two fourth-round (129th- and 135th-overall) selections to the Oakland Raiders to move up 20 spots and take Willis with the 109th-overall pick.

It didn’t take Willis long to prove he belonged throughout training camp and the preseason, and he started the regular season as a key piece of depth behind starters Hooker and Clayton Geathers at safety.

But it was the rookie’s Week 2 performance against the Tennessee Titans that really opened some eyes, as Willis, in just 29 defensive snaps, finished second on the team with seven tackles in the Colts’ narrow 19-17 road win.

Willis logged a season-high 23 snaps at free safety last Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, as Hooker suffered — and tried to play through — a knee injury. Now that Hooker is out for at least the next few weeks, the Colts have seen enough to be confident that Willis can hold it down for the time being.

“He’s done a lot of good things there,” Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said of Willis this week. “He’s played at the nickel spot actually so you can see his coverage ability. He has good coverage ability in terms of man-to-man, in terms of zone, in terms of matchup zone and all those different types of coverages. I think he will be good. We saw his role expand in Tennessee and he made some nice plays there and he’s continuing to do so.”

Willis said his top priority coming in as a rookie was to be “accountable” to his veteran teammates and coaches. That doesn’t change now that he’s the next man up at safety for the Colts.

“Know what to do, do it well. Really just do your job on a day-in, day-out basis,” Willis said of his goals this year. “Showing responsibility, showing you’re mature enough to handle whatever the coaches throw at us, and then I think the older guys they understand the difficulty of some things, the simplicity of some things, and if you handle it I think they respect it.”

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