East Lansing — When Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes crumbled to the turf at Levi’s Stadium on New Year’s Eve, he knew his immediate future had just been determined.
Willekes was doing what he does best, getting after the quarterback. As he worked his way around Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell on his way toward the Ducks’ Justin Herbert, Willekes’ left leg buckled.
“I heard it pop,” Willekes recalled on Thursday as Michigan State’s spring workouts winded down.
Willekes, the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year last season, who had started to hear his name crop up in NFL Draft discussion, knew at that moment where he would be in 2019.
“I knew immediately I was coming back,” Willekes said.
The fact Willekes had gone from former walk-on to one of the most productive defensive ends in college football had become a big story by the time the Spartans took on Oregon in the Redbox Bowl. On a defense that was dominant but couldn’t overcome a feeble offense, Willekes was emerging as the star and not simply just a good story.
The numbers were eye-popping in 2018 as Willekes had 8.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss, which ranked eighth in the nation.
It resulted in the former walk-on from tiny NorthPointe Christian in Grand Rapids being projected as a likely pick in the NFL Draft if he opted to leave school a year early. The speculation on when he might get selected were “all over the board,” Willekes said. He heard anywhere from the second round to the sixth.
And as Michigan State prepared to play in the bowl game, Willekes said the odds were in favor of him forgoing his final season with the Spartans.
“I went back and forth with it a lot,” Willekes said. “I was talking with a lot of close people back home — my parents, obviously, and some close mentors to me back home. Went back and forth a lot whether it was the right time for me to leave or stay and get my degree.
“I hadn’t made my mind up completely, but I was leaning toward leaving a little bit, but I hadn’t made my mind up completely and then this obviously made up my mind for me.”
It forced him to come back, and now entering his fifth and final season, Willekes has clear goals.
“Obviously, it’s a lot of motivation knowing that I didn’t get the grades I would like to receive,” Willekes said, “but I just got to use it as a motivation to improve my pass rush. I know that’s something, I’ve got to improve my pass rushes for sure, having a consistent pass rush plan and being a leader on this team.
“We’ve got to be better than we were last year overall as a team. That’s my biggest focus. My personal goals, those aren’t really my main goals, my main goal is improving as a team and getting back to the Big Ten championship.”
Willekes has already begun the process of getting back on the field. He has been held out of spring workouts and will be on the sidelines Saturday when the Spartans hold their annual Green and White game at 2 p.m.
He’s started running on flat ground and working on anti-gravity machines and hopes to be full-go in the next month or so. Until then, he’ll keep pushing his teammates to be better, the same way he did on New Year’s Even in Santa Clara, Calif., when he got his X-rays in the locker room and headed back out to the field to watch the second half with his teammates.
“That’s just kind of the way I am,” Willekes said. “Things are going to happen in life, things aren’t going to go your way, but it’s just how you respond and how you move on. If I’d sit there and dwell and said, ‘Poor me,’ I could have easily done that, but I want to be there for my teammates and root my teammates on.”
The last few weeks of spring practice haven’t been easy for Willekes. Never the type of player to sit back and watch, he’s been eager to push himself back on the field.
“It definitely hurts to have to watch my teammates be out here, watch my teammates struggling through a hard day working without me,” he said. “But the only thing I can do is coach, try to give back, try to be a mentor, a leader of the younger guys. I’ve been in the system for five years, so I know the defense, I know how it goes around here. I try to bring positive energy, bring the energy every day and coach up younger guys.”
And through it all, there are no regrets.
Willekes has heard the cynics that say he should have never played in the bowl game, instead opting to sit out and get ready for the Draft Combine, MSU’s pro day and individual workouts. His teammate, cornerback Justin Layne, did.
But it was never going to be the choice for Willekes.
“We work all year — winter conditioning, spring ball, summer workouts, fall camp — to get 12, 13 opportunities to go out there and battle with my teammates,” Willekes said. “So, I’d do the same thing.”
He’ll do it one more time, starting this fall. Because of that, Willekes sees no point in second-guessing.
“I’m grateful it happened,” he said. “I’m not upset about it. Everything happens for a reason and I’m excited to back in the green and white for one more year.”