Tireless work ethic pays off for MSU’s Kenny Willekes

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
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East Lansing — When Kenny Willekes was getting ready to head to Michigan State in the summer of 2015 for his first season as a walk-on with the Spartans, his high-school coach had one piece of advice.

“I said, ‘The best way for you to get yourself noticed is be the first guy there and the last guy to leave,’” Tim Swore said. “And for him that’s not a problem.

“That’s just part of his personality.”

That personality, the one that made Willekes a handful in his early days at NorthPointe Christian in Grand Rapids, Swore said, proved to be exactly what he needed at Michigan State. An overlooked prospect who piled up 423 tackles in his high school career, Willekes went through spring practice with the Spartans as a starting defensive end and with a scholarship in hand.

“Kenny sort of reminds me a little bit of a Marcus Rush,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. “He can play for us. This is his third year. He's a guy that is going to go 100 miles per hour. He's a good athlete. He's made plays for us, so we took the opportunity to give him one.”

The fact the player that at one time couldn’t garner an offer from a single school in the Mid-American Conference was now seeing significant time at Michigan State and doing so with a scholarship in hand might be surprising to outsiders.

However, to Swore and those close to Willekes, it seemed inevitable.

“I wasn’t real surprised,” said Swore, who has turned Division 6 NorthPointe into a perennial playoff team. “I was surprised at the timing. The cool thing is we happened to be there because they invite coaches over depending on what positon groups you wanted to shadow and we happened to be there the day they gave him the scholarship. That was pretty neat.

“At the time I thought it was nice, but then I get on the field and talk to a couple of coaches and I asked if he would see any playing time. They looked at me kind of puzzled and said, ‘Playing time? He’s starting at defensive end.’”

Willekes’ first chance to prove the staff made the right decision went well as he had eight tackles, including 11/2 for loss in the spring game.

The fact he’s doing so at Michigan State took some patience and a little bit of luck.

As Swore described it, most of the schools in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference had offered Willekes a scholarship but after that there was nothing, the MAC schools being conspicuously silent.

He had a preferred walk-on offer from Minnesota, but just as he was about to pull the trigger and play for the Gophers, a chance meeting with Michigan State offensive line coach Mark Staten changed things.

Willekes had joined another player on a visit to Saginaw Valley State, and on the way back that player had a meeting with Staten. Willekes walked in, long hair and sporting a black eye from rugby, and Staten was quickly contacting Swores.

“I get a text from Staten 15 minutes after they left his office,” Swore said, “and he said, ‘Tim, I can’t believe a MAC school picked this kid up. We want him.’”

Willekes was ready to take the Minnesota offer but Swore suggested they wait. Michigan State then offered the preferred walk-on spot and late in the process, Michigan jumped in as Jim Harbaugh was scrambling to put together his first recruiting class. But Swore’s belief Michigan State was the right place convinced Willekes where to go.

“It just made sense,” Swore said. “I think the world of the Michigan State coaching staff and what they do with the kids, especially the kids that aren’t the five-star kids that come in with a chip on their shoulder and have a good work ethic.”

Willekes (6-foot-3, 235 pounds) has taken advantage of his opportunity. He redshirted in 2015 but was named scout team player of the week six times, showing off the athleticism that allowed him to record 162 tackles as a high-school senior while also carrying the ball for more than 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns.

He appeared in just one game last season, but that hasn’t slowed him as he enters his sophomore season.

“The kid comes in day in, day out and works his tail off, so you can only expect good results eventually for him,” said offensive tackle Cole Chewins, who came in as part of the same class as Willekes. “I think he's proven that and he's going to continue to prove that and show that he has the ability and is going to work hard to get there.”

Whether he’s starting by the time Michigan State opens the season in Sept. 2 against Bowling Green remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt the story is already being written.

“He can be one of those walk-on stories that you see making plays because he goes 110 percent each rep,” junior linebacker Andrew Dowell said. “You tell him to run through a brick wall, he'll find a way to get through that brick wall.”

It’s a mentality Willekes has always had. One that grew at NorthPointe and now could see him become a Big Ten starter.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Swore said. “I kind of figured it would happen.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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