East Lansing — Kenny Willekes knows a little something about coming out of nowhere.
The former walk-on went from an unknown defensive end who was starting to turn heads last spring to starting 12 games as a sophomore in 2017 and earning third-team All-Big Ten honors while recording 14.5 tackles for loss, including seven sacks.
So, when Willekes brings up a name that hasn’t been talked about much, it’s worth paying attention.
That name this spring is Justice Alexander.
“I’ve been really impressed with the way Justice Alexander has been playing at defensive end,” Willekes said last week. “He’s coming along very nicely, playing physically and really buying in. Having him in my room, he’s been buying in and playing very well.”
It’s the sort of performance many expected from Alexander (6-foot-5, 257 pounds) when he came to Michigan State as a three-star prospect out of Nordonia High in Macedonia, Ohio. That was 2015, when the Spartans were loaded at defensive line with a starting group who all ended up in the NFL after leading MSU to a playoff appearance. Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas were the starting ends and Alexander was hoping to follow in their footsteps.
But the progress from that point was slow for Alexander, who has appeared in just two games in his career with four tackles. However, it seems things are clicking now as the competition to start opposite of Willekes is wide open and Alexander is putting it all together entering his junior season.
“I feel like every year that is the mindset I come in with,” Alexander said. “Even my freshman year when there was Shilique and LT, I always had that confidence because you don’t want to be down and say, ‘Maybe I won’t go hard.’ No, you have to go hard and think, this is your year and push yourself. Even if you fall short just keep pushing yourself and build yourself because you’re here because you love the sport and want to be here.
“If you push yourself eventually you’ll get on that field.”
Alexander is already clicking with new defensive ends coach Chuck Bullough, who he says pushes the ends to be better than they believe they can be. And Alexander is standing out.
“I’m still learning about all the guys,” Bullough said. “It takes time to really know your players. Kenny is obviously a hard worker. All the guys have been hard workers. Justice Alexander has come on. They’re just a bunch of tough guys that play hard, and they play hard with good technique and we can live with that. We don’t have any outstanding five-star, big, tall, long superstar athletes but we have a bunch of football players that know how to stop the run and are leaning how to rush the passer.”
There’s a chance Alexander will be one of those guys.