Rivals in college, Josh Uche, Kenny Willekes chase same goal of becoming NFL pass rusher
Mobile, Ala. — The Senior Bowl has a focus on the future. More than 100 prospects from around the country are showcasing their physical gifts and mental acumen for hundreds of prospective employers. It's part of the early stages of a months-long job interview that will culminate for many during the NFL draft in late April.
But even though each player swaps out his college jersey for the white, black and orange Senior Bowl uniforms, they don their school's helmet for the event. It's the last time many of them will wear them.
Rivalries have a way of quickly dissipating in Mobile. Players you were groomed to hate on Saturdays now share the same struggle on the practice field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium — trying to master the techniques being taught by NFL coaches to impress the league's decision-makers.
Michigan's Josh Uche and Michigan State's Kenny Willekes are one example of many. Despite playing on opposite ends of a bitter rivalry in college, here they are teammates. And it should surprise no one after a particularly good pass-rush rep by Uche, the two came together for a leaping chest bump, a brief celebratory moment during Wednesday's practice.
At least until Detroit Lions defensive coach Bo Davis yelled at them to knock it off, epitomizing the fact there's still plenty of work to be done.
Uche's performance has been eye-catching. Despite modest sack totals during his four years at Michigan, his pass-rush skills are passing the eye test with flashes of extraordinary burst off the edge. It would be easy to argue he's the fastest edge defender for either team.
The problem for Uche figures to be his size. At 6-foot-1, 241 pounds, he's undersized by NFL standards. Then again, Tampa Bay's Shaq Barrett, who isn't much bigger, just led the league with 19.5 sacks.
"I think I remember watching him in the combine, wasn't the fastest guy, but he knows how to pass rush," Uche said. "That's what he's very good at that. Bend the edge, things like that. There are certain traits needed to be an edge rusher, and be an edge player, and I feel like I possess those things. Some guys are towering figures, but I have long arms that help me set the edge, as well. And I have the speed and power to do everything. "
In addition to Barrett, Uche draws inspiration from Denver's Von Miller and Jacksonville's Yannick Ngakoue, two other premier pass rushers checking in under 250 pounds.
Uche played between 245 and 250 at Michigan and said he's currently running light in preparation from the league's scouting combine, which puts a premium on running fast. He's likely to put those pounds back on after the pre-draft process is complete.
As for Willekes, he was a late addition to the Senior Bowl roster, loosely mirroring the fact he was an afterthought as a prospect coming out of high school.
A zero-star middle linebacker recruit out of NorthPointe Christian in Grand Rapids, he walked on at Michigan State and eventually became a captain. This year, he won the Burlsworth Trophy given to the best college football player in the country that started as a walk-on.
All that to say, he's not a guy that needed added motivation from the initial snub.
"I always play with that, regardless of the circumstances, whether I was the first invite or the last invite, whether I was a scholarship player or a walk-on," Willekes said. "That's just kind of how I play. I'm full speed ahead. I play with a chip on my shoulder. Regardless of circumstances, but that's how I play."
Had he not broken his leg in Michigan State's bowl game a year ago, Willekes might have declared for the draft last year. Instead, he spent the offseason working with pass-rush gurus and, as he puts it, growing up and maturing.
He believes he's more prepared for the process now, especially mentally.
Willekes is being challenged this week by the Lions coaching staff to play standing up, in a two-point stance. He primarily lined up with his hand in the dirt for the Spartans, but it's important for him to show he can also effectively play in a 3-4 defense.
"You want to make yourself more versatile, more open," he said. "Half the NFL runs a 3-4, so (I want to) show them I have the ability to come out of a two-point stance, that I can play physical, still play with leverage."
Like Uche, Willekes also has been able to showcase his skill set in Mobile. During a nine-on-seven drill, he hit an offensive tackle so hard that he drove the lineman into the running back in the backfield, resulting in a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
"I feel like I've definitely showed the effort, toughness and physical playing style that I have, but I think scouts already knew that about me," Willekes said. "That's something they knew coming in."
Both Uche and Willekes widely were viewed as mid-round picks coming into the week, but a strong performance at the Senior Bowl has a way of forcing scouts to re-evaluate a prospect and send them shooting up draft boards. At this rate, no one should be surprised if either is drafted early than initially expected.