For Michigan State DE Kenny Willekes, a scholarship is cool, but he wants to play

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Kenny Willekes will do just about anything to his hair.

So when Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio pulled out a pair of scissors around the second week of spring and looked as if he was about to cut his hair, it didn’t faze Willekes.

As Willekes, a defensive end, recalls, Dantonio told him he was going to take a snippet of hair in exchange for something else.

Willekes’ former high school coaches from little NorthPointe Christian (Grand Rapids, Mich.) were in the meeting room that day. They had watched practice and witnessed Willekes continue to impress with hard work and tenacity.

They didn’t know what was about to happen. Neither did Willekes. He bent down and felt Dantonio cut through what had become a flowing, mullet-like mane.

“Here,” he remembered Dantonio saying as he snipped the lock of hair. “In exchange for that, I’m going to give you a scholarship.”

Willekes hasn’t forgotten that moment, and he said he probably never will. When he turned down several Division II offers in favor of walking on at Michigan State, he heard the comments from people who thought he had made a mistake.

That one cut of his hair validated his decision.

By the time preseason camp started in August, Willekes had taken his wild hair to another level. Having become a fan of the TV show, Vikings, he decided to emulate the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok. He went to the barber shop and had his sides completely shaved while leaving his long hair up top.

Maybe the latest haircut change will lead to another big step in his college career. Earning a scholarship came as a huge honor, but he still has bigger plans.

“I’ve always wanted to play,” Willekes said. “I didn’t know what to expect at all. I didn’t know if I was ever going to play here, if I was going to last all five years.”

He didn’t keep those thoughts to himself when his time on the field was minimal at the beginning of 2016 as a redshirt freshman. He and his workout buddy, then-true freshman DT Mike Panasiuk, stayed after practice, worked on the playbook and stood on the sidelines during games together, just hoping to hear their names called. Panasiuk, a highly touted recruit from Roselle. Ill., saw the field first.

“I remember during a couple of the games, he was telling me how he wants to go in now, he wants to go in,” Panasiuk said of Willekes. “I was like, ‘Well why don’t you do something about it?’ ”

And so he did. Willekes worked himself into his first college appearance on Nov. 12, where he played four snaps in a 49-0 win over Rutgers. He wouldn’t play again in 2016.

With heavy turnover on the defensive line, from Malik McDowell’s decision to enter the NFL draft to the dismissal of Josh King and Auston Robertson following sexual-assault charges, Willekes started the April 1 Green-White spring game. Defensive ends coach Mark Snyder said he can see him going back out there for the real thing.

Where does he fit?

“First and second and possibly third [downs],” Snyder said. “I hope not, but possibly third.”

Willekes, of course, continues to work on his pass rush, so maybe he can be that player on third down. Regardless of the down, 2017 likely will see Willekes playing alongside Panasiuk, with whom he’s built himself up from small-town walk-on to potential Big Ten starter.

“We’ve been willing to put in a lot of work,” Willekes said, “so hopefully it’ll pay off in the end.”

The post For Michigan State DE Kenny Willekes, a scholarship is cool, but he wants to play appeared first on Land of 10.

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