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Can Rookie Khari Willis Be Successful Stepping Into Malik Hooker’s Role?

Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus thinks so.

NFL: SEP 22 Falcons at Colts Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With Malik Hooker out 4-6 weeks with a torn meniscus, the Colts are in that familiar territory they’ve often found themselves in. “Next man up” is the frequently touted mantra of all NFL franchises, and the next man in this situation? Rookie safety Khari Willis.

Many questions remain about how well Willis, who has looked good playing in the box at times this season, will do filling in for the dynamic and rangy free safety. For his part, Matt Eberflus sounds confident in Willis’ ability to take on that particular role.

“He’s had a lot of free safety experience – Khari (Willis) has. He’s played all over in college. He’s done a lot of good things there. 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.”

That confidence will be put to the test over the coming weeks, because Willis won’t get an easy test. He’ll face Derek Carr, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson over the next three weeks, and each will undoubtedly look to challenge the rookie.

Eberflus thinks he can stand up to the challenge though, and praised his instincts and his ability to make good clean tackles, which we saw on display against the Titans in particular.

“Khari (Willis) has done an excellent job – on his college tape and since we’ve had him here. His quickness, the instinctive movement and then his ability to strike and make good tackles – he’s had several good tackles in the open field this year and we’re excited going forward.”

For Willis’ part, he doesn’t think the change will impact him in terms of his preparation for the expanded role. He talked about keeping things in perspective and keeping them the same, much as the rest of the team does. It is a mentality echoed from the head coach down.

“I think, I’m still going to prepare the same. I think our team, our defense will still prepare the same. You know go out and look to make the most of the opportunities that will be given to us this game.”

As for the change in terms of position to being more focused on coverage, Willis wasn’t concerned.

“I have been playing at both. I have been repping at both so it’s not like I’m having to re-install everything. It’s something that I have been doing for quite some time now. I’m just ready for the challenge.”

Willis has certainly shown early signs of being a solid player, and the Colts will need him to take another step in the coming weeks. They face tough challenges in terms of the offenses they’ll be up against, and the quarterbacks they face are certainly able to attack downfield. If the rookie steps up and plays well, it will be a testament to the Colts scouts who thought highly enough of him to trade up to take him in the fourth round of the draft.

Ready or not, it is Willis’ time. Now we’ll see what he does with it.