When senior safety Khari Willis enters Spartan Stadium for the last time against Rutgers Saturday, it’ll be his mom’s, Mary Catherine, first time.
“That’ll be exciting for me, just to have her come out and try to put on a show defensively,” Willis said after practice Tuesday.
Willis will be joined by 17 other seniors for senior day, when Michigan State (6-5, 4-4 in Big Ten) takes on the Scarlet Knights (1-10, 0-8) at 4 p.m. Saturday on FOX.
“I’ll try to hold all the emotions I can, save those for after the game, try to stay focused,” Willis said. “But, I’m going to enjoy every moment of it.”
The other 17 seniors — wide receiver Felton Davis III, guard David Beedle, defensive end Dillon Alexander, linebackers Andrew Dowell, Jon Reschke, Byron Bullough and Grayson Miller, safety Matt Morrissey, tight ends Matt Sokol and Chase Gianacakos, fullbacks Collin Lucas and Ben Line, long snapper Collin Caflisch, defensive tackle Gerald Owens, quarterback Mickey Macius, offensive lineman Noah Listermann and cornerback Tyson Smith — have had an interesting four, or in some cases, five years.
It started in 2014, when Beedle, Sokol, Morrissey, Reschke, Alexander, Bullough, Owens, Lucas and Gianacakos, all were redshirted, but experienced going 11-2 and beating Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.
The next year, a Big Ten championship win over Iowa and a College Football Playoff appearance, eventually losing to eventual national champion Alabama.
In 2016 it was the complete opposite of the previous two years, going 3-9 for the worst record in MSU coach Mark Dantonio’s 12-year tenure. In between 2016 and 2017, four players were kicked off the team for sexual assault: Demetric Vance, Josh King and Donnie Corley in one incident, and Auston Robertson in another.
The Spartans flipped the script in 2017, going 10-3 and securing a win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. Now, MSU’s looking for its seventh win against Rutgers to hopefully improve its bowl placing.
In other words, this senior class has been through a lot.
“They understand how quick things can flip on you, some other off the field [experience] can shake you to your core,” Dantonio said in his weekly news conference Tuesday. “And then they've experienced an opportunity to get up off the mat, win 10 games last year and a bowl game, and I thought we had a very good year last year with a lot of players coming back."
“Now they have experienced an, oh, it's about the inches, or it's about, you know, the smallest of things or injuries or people or whatever it is, all the different factors that go into that.”
But, Dantonio said experiencing these ups and downs also leaves this senior class another legacy — the ability to handle different challenges life throws at you.
Because to him, that’s what college football teaches you.
“You're going to have some good life experiences and you're going to have some bad ones, I'm sure, and that goes with everybody's experiences,” Dantonio said. “I think their legacy is hopefully they have experienced growth as a person, and that growth will make them stronger individuals as they grow older, if they have been to the height of basically college football and Big Ten, having won a championship here.”
No matter the legacy, even if it’s a family legacy such as the Bullough’s with brothers Max and Riley, his dad, Shane, his uncles, Chuck and Bobby Morse, and grandpa, Hank,
“It’s going to be an incredible feeling,” Bullough said. “I don’t think I’ll know exactly how to feel until it’s really over with. But, I’m excited about it. It’s the last one. I’m just going to try and make the most of it.”
Felton Davis to participate in senior day activities, Brandon Sowards applying for sixth year
During his weekly news conference, Dantonio said Davis will participate in senior day festivities after tearing his left achilles in a loss against Michigan Oct. 20, and that Davis has been an “outstanding player” and “outstanding leader” for MSU.
“He speaks to football ending for someone very, very quickly like that, how things can change in your life very quickly and about not taking things for granted and pressing forward, so he speaks to that,” Dantonio said. “I also think that he got himself ready to play and he was very positive. He was a very positive leader for us throughout his time playing, and he remained positive.”
Dantonio said Davis gave an emotional and strong speech last Friday night, before the Spartans’ 9-6 loss to Nebraska.
“He talked about how things can change on him quickly, just what he experienced and about how -- the need to play and sort of respect,” Dantonio said. “The respect of being able to play the game, and how things can turn on you and it can be taken away from you very quickly. And he pressed a little bit on their competitive emotions.”
Before talking about Davis, however, Dantonio confirmed wide receiver Brandon Sowards will apply for a sixth year of eligibility, after missing the entire 2017 season due to a torn ACL.
Sowards has caught all 18 career catches this season for 201 yards, including three receptions for 59 yards in a loss against Northwestern Oct. 6, and six receptions for 48 yards in a win over Purdue. He’s also handled punt returns this season, returning nine for 60 total yards.
“He is planning on applying for a sixth year and that should work out,” Dantonio said.