Le'Veon Bell and Kirk Cousins were two of the more popular names that we have seen in free agency over the past two seasons. Another thing they have in common is the college grounds they shared. East Lansing, Michigan, is known for its sports tradition and one that many are proud to have been a part of.
Another player slated to exit the program and enter the NFL ranks is defensive end Kenny Willekes, who has one of the more unique stories of any prospect in this draft class. He leaves college as one of the best defensive players in Michigan State history after entering campus as a little known walk-on.
Now, five years later, Willekes has played in 40 career games that included 38 starts and 31 consecutive starting nods over his final three seasons. He ranked first in school history in tackles for loss (51) and third in sacks (26). He also participated in the Reese's Senior Bowl and performed well during the week of practices, recording two sacks during the game.
I had a chance to sit down with the star edge rusher. We talked about his upbringing in Western Michigan, his NFL outlook, being a part of a competitive household, a word of advice to walk-ons across the country and recapping his career with the Spartans.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Question: I know the pre-draft process is a lot; going to the Senior Bowl, getting ready for the NFL combine. Give us an update.
Willekes: It's going really well. I'm back home training in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At a gym called Power Strength. I trained there growing up in high school. It kind of set the foundation for me to be successful at Michigan State. Physical toughness and strength are obviously a big part of it, but most importantly it's the mental toughness. I think that's the most important side and I felt training at the gym back home would give me an edge. There's a lot going on, but I try to enjoy it. It's been fun for me so far. I've been making a lot of progress.
Q: I want to back up a little bit, from what I was reading, you grew up on a 20-acre farm. Is that correct?
W: That's a little bit exaggerated. I grew up on 10 acres of land. We didn't have a farm. I got a lake, woods, field — all of that. It wasn't a farm, but we were outside a lot. We didn't have a TV growing up, so we were constantly outside. Jumping, four-wheelers, sledding down the back hill, ice skating and doing that type of stuff.
Q: You're one of eight siblings. Talk about how competitive the household was for you growing up.
W: It's definitely a super competitive household. My older brother has Olympic trials for trampoline coming up. My older sister is in college and she's a lawyer right now. She's going to med school. Those are two of the examples of competitiveness in my household. Each and every one of the siblings, we're all wired a little bit differently, but we all have that competitiveness in us.
Q: How did you get involved with the game of football?
W: I was actually homeschooled in fifth and sixth grade, and I didn't like it. I'm a social person. I like talking to people, so I told my mom that I wanted to go back to school, but they told me that they would let me play football if I stayed in home school for one more year.
Q: Coming out of high school, you didn't have any Division I offers. Talk about how you kept that walk-on chip on your shoulder.
W: Before I talked to coach [Mark] Dantonio, I never even talked to another Division I head coach. Michigan State came in late during the process and gave me an opportunity to be a preferred walk-on, which I'm forever grateful for. I just took that opportunity and never looked back. I could've taken the money at a Division II school and go on there to play, but I thought I had the ability to compete and play at Michigan State, and I wanted to go prove that.
Q: Originally you started off as a linebacker. Talk about the hardest part of the transition to defensive end from there.
W: Getting in a stance was weird for me at first. I never played with my hand in the dirt before and I would make the transition over. A lot of that playing with my siblings. We wrestled a lot growing up. We were into MMA and we would look on YouTube and copy moves from there to use on each other.
Q: What would you say is your favorite pass-rush move?
W: It's honestly changed a lot over time. I like to go speed-to-power. I like adding other things to like show them speed-to-power and then dip under the edge. That was kind of my main go-to move. Another one that I like to use a lot was the double sweep. Those were probably my main ones.
Q: There's a bunch of walk-on athletes throughout the country. What's a word of advice that you would give them considering your positives and how you managed to overcome formerly being in that group?
W: The biggest thing is being disciplined. When things aren't going your way or even when it looks like you might not be able to play or the opportunity, continue to do the little things. Continue to put the extra work in and eventually it'll pay off it you stay consistent and discipline with it.