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2020 NFL Draft Profile: Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes

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NCAA Football: Indiana at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

After taking a look at cornerback Josiah Scott, we continue our 2020 NFL Draft profiles for Michigan State Spartans with defensive end Kenny Willekes. Either Scott or Willekes will be the first Spartan off the board come next week, and it will be interesting to see when and where they go.

Willekes is beloved by Spartans fans. His story is easy to get behind — a former walk-on who became one of the best defenders the program has ever seen. He is a high energy player who is always looking to put in the hard work to get where he needs to be. Willekes will surely hear his named called, virtually, during the NFL Draft. Here is what he brings to the table:

Profile:

Name: Kenny Willekes
Position: Defensive End
Height: 6-foot-3
Weight: 265 pounds
Draft Projection: Between the third and sixth rounds


NFL Scouting Combine Measurables:


40-yard dash: 4.87 seconds (15th among DL)
Bench press: 32 reps (second among DL)
Vertical jump: 32.5 inches (eighth among DL)
Broad jump: 119 inches (eighth among DL)
Three-cone drill: 7.39 seconds (10th among DL)
*Did not participate in 20-yard shuffle.

Willekes participated in just about every drill, and ranked in the top-15 amongst all defensive linemen in each drill, and in the top-10 in most of them. He was tied for second in bench press reps with 32, just one rep behind Ohio State’s Davon Hamilton for first place. He also ran a faster 40-yard dash time than expected, and showed off his explosiveness in the vertical and broad jumps. Additionally, Willekes scored a 35 on the Wonderlic test, showing off his intelligence (average score is around 20 or 21). The Combine was an opportunity for Willekes to show off his athleticism, as that seemed to be the big knock on him by national analysts, and he most certainly did that. After a strong week at the Senior Bowl, Willekes’ Combine performance definitely helped his stock.

While some still question Willekes’ athletic profile, he put together an impressive Relative Athletic Score (RAS), of 7.38. RAS attempts to quantify a player’s measurements and metrics and puts them on a 0 to 10 scale compared to their position group. That number essentially puts Willekes in the 73.8 percentile range for the defensive line position.


Statistics and Accolades

Via MSUSpartans.com:

Games Played: 40 (three-year starter)
Total Tackles: 229
Tackles For Loss: 51 (ranks first in program history)
Sacks: 26 (ranks third in program history)
Passes Defended: Four
Forced Fumbles: Four
Fumble Recoveries: Five

  • Michigan State’s all-time leader in tackles for loss (51)
  • First-team All-American selection by The Athletic in 2018
  • Second-team All-American selection by multiple publications in 2018
  • Named to the Walter Camp All-America second-team in both 2018 and 2019
  • Won Smith-Brown Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Award in 2018
  • Named first-team All-Big Ten by the media and second-team All-Big Ten by the coaches in 2019
  • Named first-team All-Big Ten by the media, coaches, Associated Press and many other publications in 2018
  • Named third-team All-Big Ten by both the media and coaches in 2017
  • Won the Burlsworth Trophy in 2019, awarded to “most outstanding player to begin his career as a walk-on.”
  • Won Michigan State’s Governor’s Award for team MVP in both 2018 and 2019
  • Team captain in 2019 and spent two years on Michigan State’s Eagles leadership council

Overview:


You may not find a harder worker in this draft class than Willekes, the former walk-on who leaves Michigan State as the program’s all-time leader in tackles for loss and is third all-time in sacks. A lot of analysts question his athletic ability, but he showed those concerns to be false at the NFL Combine (and in the video I’ve linked below under the “Highlights” section). Willekes earned multiple All-Big Ten selections, All-American recognition and trophies during his time at Michigan State. He’s a high motor player and a leader, spending multiple years on the team’s Eagles leadership council and serving as a team captain in 2019.

Unfortunately for Willekes (and the rest of the 2020 group), he is unable to have private workouts and face-to-face meetings with NFL franchises due to COVID-19, so if teams are concerned about his athletic traits, he can’t convince them otherwise in-person. Willekes is, however, speaking to teams via phone or video and training from home. As of right now, Willekes is likely an early Day Three pick, probably in the fourth round, but he could work his way into the Day Two, third round conversation. If any team is able to snag him in the fifth round or later, there is going to be a lot of value in that selection. I expect Willekes to start off as a rotational player at defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, and eventually become an NFL starter, outworking everybody along the way.


What scouts, analysts and coaches are saying about Willekes

“There’s a lot of different (MSU) players that are going to be in the later-round discussion. Of all the players – Kenny Willekes started out the year and looked like an elite guy, and then didn’t get off to the great start, then came on late.” — ESPN Draft Analyst, Mel Kiper

“Racking up 47.5 tackles for loss and 22 sacks from 2017-2019, Wilekes has been a highly productive defender for Michigan State. He plays with unmatched urgency and is highly competitive. While he may not have the highest ceiling, Willekes does have a high floor as a 4-3 defensive end. His modest play strength and athleticism will present challenges defeating blocks in the NFL and he’ll need to become more reliant on his technique which has room for growth. At a minimum, Willekes should be a valuable rotational end and his upside is contingent on if he can get stronger and become more nuanced.” — Joe Marino, Draft Analyst The Draft Network

“More effort than really twitch and explosiveness. He kills tight ends — man, he loves to play over tight ends, does a great job against them. He can bull rush. I just didn’t see a ton of twitch or a ton of burst with him. Although, I’ll give him credit, he did some good things down in Mobile at the Senior Bowl.” — NFL Network Draft Analyst, Daniel Jeremiah

“Willekes has packed on the pounds and the production since arriving at Michigan State as a walk-on. He’s a high effort worker-bee with a relentless nose for the football. His refusal to give in until the whistle is more responsible for his success than his size or athletic traits. He’s neither quick nor explosive, but he’s very instinctive and has an above-average understanding of blocking scheme and play development. He’s become a very impactful college player against all odds, but lacks the athletic profile to stick around long-term as a pro.” — NFL.com Draft Analyst, Lance Zierlein


Highlights:

With pundits still questioning Willekes’ athletic ability, such as in some of the analysis above, Willekes recently shared a video on Twitter demonstrating his impressive flexibility, explosiveness and athleticism.