In this year’s NFL Draft, there was not a lot of hype around the pass rushers because it generally wasn’t regarded as a strong class. Of course, there was a lot of talk around guys like new Washington Redskins defensive end Chase Young and Jacksonville Jaguars outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson. But in the seventh round, the Minnesota Vikings drafted a defensive end out of Michigan State that flew under the radar. That defensive end was the 6’4″, 250 lb. pass rusher Kenny Willekes.
Willekes had 10 sacks in 2019, and played in all 13 games for three years in a row for the Spartans, showing flashes of top-level pass rush ability and was also seen as a solid gap defender in stopping the run. Early on in the draft process, Pro Football Magazine and others had Willekes graded as a mid-round pick, potentially going somewhere in the third or fourth rounds of the NFL Draft.
For one reason or the other, that didn’t happen, and there are differing opinions as to why that was the case. But the reasons why he fell in the draft aren’t on Willekes’ mind. “To be honest, I don’t even think about that — I just want to play ball,” Willekes told Pro Football Magazine. “The Minnesota Vikings, Rick Spielman, and the Wilf family gave me that opportunity and they are going to get everything I have.”
Giving everything he has is pretty typical for Willekes — that was one of the main things that jumped out on tape during the draft scouting process. The motor never stopped running, and the effort was there through the whistle on every play. At Michigan State, there is a great coaching emphasis placed on effort and the strong defensive focus there pairs well with what the Vikings and Coach Mike Zimmer are known for in Minnesota.
Asked how it feels to now get to play for another team with a strong defensive focus and history of success on that side of the ball, Willekes said, “Coming from a strong defensive program in Michigan State, I am excited to get the opportunity to play for a franchise that takes pride in its defense. Coach Zimmer and Coach (Andre) Patterson are two of the great defensive minds in football and I am looking forward to getting up to Minnesota and learning from both of them.”
Willekes will suit up alongside Pro Bowl pass rusher Danielle Hunter among others, which just feels like the right situation for the young and hungry quarterback hunter out of Michigan State.
And although he hasn’t met many of his teammates and coaches in person yet, it seems like there is already some early chemistry. “When I was drafted, numerous players reached out to me and welcomed me to the team, which was great,” said Willekes. “I also have had the opportunity to get to know and learn from our coaches via virtual meetings.”
Of course, the virtual offseason is the new normal for the time being in the NFL, but it’s important for a rookie like Willekes to build the connections to his teammates and coaches early on — virtually or otherwise. The Vikings just seem like the right fit for Willekes, as the team will appreciate the effort he brings to every practice and on game days. And on the other hand, he’ll have the opportunity to learn from one of the best defensive line coaches in the game in Andre Patterson, whose defenses are always near the top of the NFL leaderboards in terms of sacks.
So if and when the 2020 NFL season finally kicks off, what is Kenny Willekes looking forward to the most? “Moving into a new city and meeting new people is always exciting to me, ” Willekes told us. “I’m looking forward to getting acclimated to Minnesota, and getting in the locker room to meet my new teammates, being part of Skol Nation.”
And if Willekes brings the same level of effort and grit to U.S. Bank Stadium on Sundays, like he did for the Spartans on Saturdays, Skol Nation will welcome him with open arms, and realize they got a very talented pass rusher late in the NFL Draft.
Pro Football Magazine’s Mousi Sabir contributed to this report.
(Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)