East Lansing – Back in 2015, it was hard not to notice Kenny Willekes.
OK, that’s only true if you happened to be at Michigan State’s practices on a weekly basis. Willekes wasn’t taking the field on Saturdays as the Spartans were marching to a Big Ten title and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Instead, Willekes was busy putting in his work during the week, becoming a huge reason his teammates were prepared when they did hit the field on the weekend.
The walk-on from the west side of the state and tiny North Pointe Christian was seemingly everywhere. He was the scout team player of the week four times on special teams, once on offense and once on defense.
Yeah, that will get you noticed.
“When you watch the film,” coach Mark Dantonio said, “you wondered, how did this guy not get a scholarship.”
And that was coming from the head coach who eventually awarded Willekes a scholarship in the spring of 2017.
Just like it was hard not to notice the ball of energy who came to MSU as a linebacker and running back before settling in at defensive end, it was hard to keep him from cracking the lineup and eventually breathing life back into a Spartans pass rush that was nearly non-existent in 2016.
As the starter in 12 of 13 games last season, Willekes recorded 14.5 tackles for loss, including seven sacks, as Michigan State more than doubled its sack total from 11 to 28.
“He's in a position now where he can play,” Dantonio said. “He understands what to do. He plays extremely hard. Very enthusiastic. He brings enthusiasm to our defense and I think the sky's the limit. He can do anything, and he's a big, strong guy now. He can play at this level from a standpoint of strength. He's a very good athlete.”
It makes the fact he was once a walk-on a distant memory as Willekes was named third-team All-Big Ten last season and is a mainstay on the defense. While the Spartans spend most of preseason camp trying to find out who will start opposite Willekes, they have no such worries with the 6-foot-4, 260-pound ball of energy.
What they are comfortable in is knowing that Willekes’ walk-on roots mean he’ll never stop working, something he’s shown on a regular basis and something that rubs off on the rest of the team.
“He’s been fantastic, and he has gained the respect,” defensive ends coach Chuck Bullough said. “He came in as a walk-on and he earned it. He didn’t get anything handed to him. He has that humility about him.”
Since the 2107 season ended, Willekes has been focused on what he needs to do next. Just being a good story isn’t enough for him. He’s pushing to become one of the best in the Big Ten.
“I have two things (I’ve worked on) and my first one is I have to improve my pass rush,” Willekes said. “It’s been my biggest focus all offseason, it’s been my biggest focus through the spring, through the fall, my No. 1 goal. So being a dominant and elite pass rusher is something I want to focus on, and then being a leader. Bring the other guys with me and trying to find another guy in the room that can step up and play across from me.”
The biggest way for Willekes to become a better pass rusher has been to improve his footwork. It’s something Bullough has emphasized with the entire position group since arriving on campus, and he’s pushing Willekes hard.
Willekes believes he’s already benefitting from Bullough, who took over after Mark Snyder left for a similar position at Florida State.
“Coach Bullough is incredible,” Willekes said. “He’s got a lot of knowledge and he’s helped me with my footwork tremendously. I didn’t have great footwork the past season. He’s been great helping with my pass rush.”
What will always separate Willekes, however, is the way he plays the game. The fact he was once a walk-on will always be part of that.
“He’s definitely a great discovery,” defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “Anytime you have someone that comes in as a walk-on and produces like he has still early in his career, that’s fantastic. But one thing Coach Dantonio has always done is try to find guys that fit us in terms of motor and their passion for the game of football, and if you find those guys, out of sheer will they pan out.”