If there is one area on the Michigan State defense that needs to vastly improve from last season it is the defensive line. The drop off in play from the front four last season was a huge factor in the Spartans titanic fall from the College Football Playoff to a 3-9 record. In 2014 and 2015 MSU’s defense ranked ninth and 13th nationally in sacks. Last year, tied for 124th out of 128 teams. Only Texas State and East Carolina had fewer sacks than MSU’s eleven.
Gone from the defensive line is second round pick Malik McDowell, who saw time both inside and outside throughout the course of the season. Meanwhile there are question marks surrounding several other returning defensive linemen for a variety of reasons. What we are left with is a very murky picture as to what exactly the front line of the Spartan defense will look like. But not to worry, a possible hero has emerged.
For all the more heralded defensive recruits the Spartans have landed over the last several seasons, the salvation of the MSU defensive line may very well come in the form of a walk-on. Enter red-shirt sophomore Kenny Willekes.
The Rockford, Michigan native has spent the last two years working as hard as he possibly can as a walk-on, trying to improve and impress, and it has paid off. Willekes was given a scholarship this season, and with it, he may very well earn himself a starting role.
Defensive end is a wide open spot right now, and Willekes has taken advantage. He burst onto the scene in the spring game, racking up eight tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss. After the game, Mark Dantonio compared Willekes to former Spartan defensive end Marcus Rush, who finished his career among MSU’s all-time leaders in sacks and tackles for loss.
The praise for Kenny came not only from Mark Dantonio, but also from many of his teammates, who were quick to name Willekes as one of the players that has been most impressive in spring camp.
To me Kenny Willekes has a chance to be the next big thing on the Spartans defensive line for a couple reasons. One is that he may well have earned himself a starting spot at a position that badly needs someone to step up ant assert themselves. The other reason though, is because Willekes fits the role of a potential Spartan cult hero. Michigan State fans love the scrappy, hard-working underdog, because that is largely how they see their team as a whole. A guy going from walk-on, to scholarship, to starter is the perfect story for them to latch onto, and with the current state of the MSU football program, fans are ready for a positive story to rally around. Kenny Willekes may very well be that story.
Oh, and if I have given you the impression that he is some slouch who just happened to walk-on, think again. This is a guy that finished his high school career with 423 tackles and was named first team all-state. He also started at running back as a senior and ran for over 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. This guy is an athlete.
If there is one thing Mark Dantonio and his staff have done better than anyone else in the country, it is find and develop talent that was overlooked. Kenny Willekes may be the next in a long line of key contributors that seem to come out of nowhere. Hopefully, it will now be opposing quarterbacks that are left wondering “where did that guy come from.”