Former walk-on Kenny Willekes emerges as Michigan State's terror in trenches

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — When Kenny Willekes first came across Michigan State’s radar, the coaching staff wondered how the big, physical kid from a small school on the west side of the state had done no better than garnering Division II scholarship offers.

When he first arrived on campus as a preferred walk-on, Brian Lewerke was sure Willekes was just another guy. Nothing special, really.

Michigan State defensive lineman Kenny Willekes (48) has registered 20.5 tackles for loss this season.

So, yeah, there were differing opinions on the 6-foot-4 ball of energy who collected 162 tackles as a high-school senior at NorthPointe Christian in Grand Rapids while also carrying the ball for more than 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns.

“When you watch the film,” coach Mark Dantonio said early this fall, “you wondered, how did this guy not get a scholarship.”

Lewerke, the team’s quarterback, had a different view back in 2015 when both arrived on campus.

“No disrespect to him,” Lewerke said this week. “But when I came in, I saw him, I was like, ‘There’s no way.’ He played fullback, he played middle linebacker, I think he played tight end on scout team for a little bit. Coming in, I was like, ‘I just don’t see this guy being able to play.’”

Of course, Willekes has spent the better part of the last two seasons proving to his roommate that his powers of prognostication were a bit off.

And now there is no disagreement, though it would have been hard to predict how far Willekes would progress. This season, Willekes became the Big Ten’s Defensive Lineman of the Year while earning All-American honors — first-team from The Athletic and second-team from four other publications — after collecting 20.5 tackles for loss, including 8.5 sacks and 12 quarterback hurries while recording 76 tackles.

He also earned the Governor’s Award given each year to Michigan State’s most valuable player.

“It’s pretty crazy to me,” Willekes said. “It’s something I dreamed of, something I worked for, but it’s something you don’t know if it will come or if it’s God’s plan or not for you.”

Not many could have seen this plan, even as Willekes earned a scholarship last spring. Many were still skeptical he’d be a difference-maker, but after he was thrust into a starting spot following the dismissals of Josh King and Auston Robertson, Willekes took off.

Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes had 8.5 sacks this season.

As a sophomore in 2017, Willekes recorded 14.5 tackles for loss, including seven sacks, while earning third-team All-Big Ten honors. It was all just a warm-up for 2018, when he became a dominant playmaker on a dominant defense.

It had Lewerke shaking his head at how off he was about his teammate. His prediction for Willekes was so off, he hardly remembered the fact Willekes, who spent most of his redshirt season at running back and tight end, was scout team player of the week six times.

During preparation for the College Football Playoff matchup with Alabama, Willekes played the role of Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry.

“It was interesting,” Lewerke said. “I don’t really remember it because I was running the scout team for the defense. Wait, which means he would be with me. Forget that.”

Those days would be some of the last that Willekes was overlooked. He played just one game on defense in 2016, but each week he was starting to make a name for himself.

“They switched him to D-end, and he just flipped a switch,” Lewerke said.

The rest was up to Willekes, who junior linebacker Joe Bachie said is the hardest worker on the team, and it’s not even close.

"He's got the most respect on the team,” Bachie said.

Not that any of the success or praise from his teammates and coaches has changed Willekes. In his mind, he’s still the walk-on trying to get noticed, out to prove he belongs playing on college football’s biggest stage.

“It just motivates me to continue to work harder,” Willekes said, “and I hope that other people can see what hard work could get you if you continue to stick with it and continue to keep working. I hope it’s a light for other people and an example for other people I hope to set, and I hope to continue working and hopefully there’s more in store.”

There’s some thought Willekes could be getting set to play his last game for Michigan State when it takes on Oregon in the Redbox Bowl on Dec. 31. But he’s said any of those considerations will come later.

Odds are, he’ll be back for his senior season, ready to reinforce what he’s already proven. And his teammates will be the ones cheering the loudest, even if it is all a surprise.

“It’s really good to see his growth,” Lewerke said. “I’m so happy for him. Whatever he does, I’m just glad to see him in this position.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau