It turned out to be a busy day on Saturday for former Michigan State players, even if only two were selected on the final day of the NFL Draft.
The streak of having at least one player taken was extended to 80 years when cornerback Josiah Scott, who opted to leave Michigan State after his junior season, was selected in the fourth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars, going No. 137 overall. Later, defensive end Kenny Willekes was taken in the seventh round (No. 225 overall) by the Minnesota Vikings.
That was it, though, even as a handful of Spartans entered the three-day draft expecting to be selected. It didn’t take long, however, for those players to start finding homes.
Linebacker Joe Bachie, who was projected as a late-round pick, signed with the New Orleans Saints while defensive tackle Raequan Williams, also a late-round projection, signed with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I’ll remember this,” Bachie posted on Twitter after going undrafted.
Soon after the draft was completed, former NFL executive Gil Brandt released his top undrafted players. Bachie was listed No. 1 at linebacker while Williams was No. 2 at defensive tackle.
The other player many expected had a chance to be taken was quarterback Brian Lewerke. On Sunday afternoon, it was announced that Lewerke had signed with the New England Patriots, joining former MSU quarterback Brian Hoyer as the Patriots begin life after Tom Brady.
“I know I am a great QB,” Lewerke said Saturday on Twitter. “I’m extremely confident in that and I will prove it one way or another. I’ll always praise God in the highs and the lows.”
Most of the other Michigan State prospects were longshots to be drafted, but they also quickly signed free-agent deals. Defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk signed with the Las Vegas Raiders while wide receiver Darrell Stewart signed with the Green Bay Packers and wide receiver Cody White, who left MSU after his junior season, signed with the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. Offensive lineman Tyler Higby joined Willekes in Minnesota.
David Dowell, listed at No. 13 on Brandt’s list of undrafted safeties, had not signed as of Sunday morning.
By the time Michigan State’s free agents were signing, Scott was celebrating with family in Ohio after his selection, one he said he felt confident in even though nothing was certain.
“When you leave college early, you never know what to expect,” Scott said on Saturday. “I never filed for a grade or anything like that, I was kind of just betting on myself.
“Thinking about going in the fourth round, it’s just about opportunity. At the end of the day, my goal was to just to get in the league and now it’s time to stay in the league and that’s been my mindset the entire time.”
A freshman All-American in 2017, Scott started all 30 games of his Spartan career and was a two-time All-Big Ten selection, earning second-team honors as a junior in 2019 and third team by the media in 2017. Last season, Scott had a career-high 55 tackles and tied for fourth in the Big Ten during the regular season with 11 passes defended, including eight pass breakups and three interceptions.
Scott finished his Michigan State career with 98 tackles, 25 pass breakups and seven interceptions in 30 games. He overcame a knee injury that forced him to miss eight games as a sophomore in 2018.
“He has a quieter personality, but you can tell just with his football intellect, how important football was to him,” Mark Ellenz, the Jaguars’ director of college scouting, said. “This is a kid that walked on campus as a freshman and earned a starting job. He had to overcome some injuries in his career and had to bounce back. Just liked the makeup of the player.”
At just under 5-foot-10, the only knock on Scott is his ability in 50/50 balls with bigger receivers. However, he’s made up for it with his speed and athleticism, running a 4.42 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.
Scott said the Jaguars, who met with at the combine but had only minimal contact with leading up to the draft, expect him to come in and contribute right away.
“They asked if I’m ready to go in the slot and I definitely am,” Scott said. “Definitely can contribute to special teams, and that’s what they asked about also. I think that’s what they’re expecting of me, to go in and play nickel and special teams, and contribute.”
Willekes had to wait longer than some expected, being taken with the 11th pick of the final round by the Vikings.
“I’m excited,” Willekes said. “I’m ready to get to work.”
Willekes was the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year as a junior in 2018 and returned for his senior season after suffering a broken leg in the Redbox Bowl. In 2019, Willekes recorded 10.5 sacks and finished his career with 51 tackles for loss, the most in program history.
“He had to earn everything he got at Michigan State,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “A classic overachiever. He doesn’t have long arms you want in a defensive end and he’s a former walk-on, but he has that knack for getting after the quarterback. ... What he does is he anticipates that snap. He wants to beat that offensive tackle out of his stance and he does it a decent amount of time.
“Will the NFL be too much for him when he’s going against the best offensive tackles in the world? Maybe, but this is the kind of guy you don’t want to bet against.”
Getting taken in the final round will allow Willekes to follow a similar path as he did at Michigan State, going from a walk-on to a two-time second-team All-American.
“No doubt,” Willekes said. “I went through the same thing walking on at Michigan State. I’m no stranger to adversity, no stranger to hard work. I said many times during the process, it doesn’t matter where I get picked. Whatever team picks me, whatever team takes a chance on me, I’m gonna show up, be all in and be ready to work.”