The return of Kenny Willekes to Michigan State’s defensive line was never guaranteed.
Willekes was a promising NFL draft prospect late last season when he suffered a broken fibula in a bowl game on New Year’s Eve. The setback prompted him to his return for his senior season, spurred by a desire to finish his college career on a better note.
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The decision bolstered one of the nation’s best defenses and could pose a challenge Saturday night for Ohio State and quarterback Justin Fields.
As a stout pass rusher and returning all-conference standout, Willekes ended September with four sacks, tied for 15th most in the nation and ranking third in the Big Ten. In his five games, Fields has been sacked 10 times, toward the higher end of conference quarterbacks.
Willekes boasts good size, listed at 6 feet 4 and 260 pounds, but Ohio State coach Ryan Day said that the defensive end is disruptive in the backfield for other reasons.
It is largely his will and strength.
“He's got to be really, really strong because he gets off of blocks better than anybody I've ever seen in the last couple years on film in this conference,” Day said. “He plays really hard. His motor is off the chart. He's very difficult to block. A really good player, really tough and strong. He's in on every tackle, it seems like.”
Though he spent much of his offseason rehabbing his broken leg, Willekes had a fast start this season. In a season-opening win over Tulsa, he had 1.5 sacks and returned a fumble for a touchdown, earning the Big Ten’s defensive player of the week honor.
Willekes’ development bucked perception after he was an under-recruited linebacker from Rockford, Michigan, weighing little more than 200 pounds, when he joined the Spartans as a walk-on in 2015.
He later received a scholarship as a redshirt sophomore after moving to the defensive line, carving out a bigger and bigger role.