Big Ten walk-ons blaze a unique path to college football success

Josh Helmholdt, Recruiting Analyst
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CHICAGO - The first recruiting visit that initiated Kenny WillekesMichigan State career was not even his recruiting visit.

The Big Ten’s reigning Defensive Lineman of the Year was one of three Spartans' representatives at Big Ten Media Days, but his path to East Lansing differed greatly from teammates Joe Bachie and Raequan Williams.

“I was actually on my way back from an official visit with Wayne State,” Willekes recalled of that first Michigan State visit. “I was with my buddy (Nick) Marosi, and he was stopping through to talk with the coaches at Michigan State. He was thinking about being a preferred walk-on there and I was just there with him.”

Wayne State is a Division II school in Detroit, and represented one of Willekes’ best opportunities at the time coming out of NorthPointe Christian High School in West Michigan. The Football Subdivision level was barely on Willekes’ radar, but tagging along on Marosi’s Michigan State visit proved to be a fortuitous turn for the future Spartans star.

“I was just talking with the Michigan State coaches and they just asked me, ‘What are your plans for next year?’” Willekes said. “I had originally been considering walking on at Minnesota, so I told them that. They (said), ‘If you’re going to walk-on somewhere, you might as well walk-on here.

“The rest is history.”

History is still being made in Willekes’ Michigan State career. Besides all-Big Ten first team honors, the fourth-year junior also earned second team All-American honors following the 2018 season. He considered entering the 2019 NFL Draft, but a broken leg in Michigan State’s bowl game last December helped convince Willekes to return for his final year in East Lansing. Early projections now have him as a first-round draft pick in 2020.

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Brandon Brown

Jordan Glasgow’s career at Michigan has not yet yielded the same accolades as Willekes’, but the fifth-year senior’s presence in Chicago as one of three Wolverine player representatives speaks to his importance on this year’s team.

Walking on at Michigan has become a Glasgow family tradition. Older brothers Graham and Ryan both took the walk-on path to become starters for the Wolverines, and now play in the NFL. Despite their success preceding him, though, Jordan could not get Michigan to offer a scholarship out of high school.

“Looking back on it, I don’t think I was as good in high school as I would like to believe,” Glasgow admitted. “You see some of the highlight tapes like Khaleke’s (Hudson), then I look at mine and understand why I didn’t get a scholarship to Michigan.”

Entering his final year in a Michigan uniform, though, Glasgow has already played in 40 games, earned two starts and was named Special Teams Player of the Year in 2017.

Michigan was not unique in withholding an offer from Glasgow coming out of high school, though. In fact, his older brother, Ryan, was the only Glasgow to earn an FBS offer out of high school and he landed just one, from Mid-American Conference program Northern Illinois.

The Mid-American Conference usually does a solid job of grabbing Midwestern prospects who fall through the Power Five cracks, but not in these cases. Willekes said he never heard from a single MAC school during his recruitment, but that lack of attention did not diminish his own self-belief.

“I just felt I was going to go work my butt off until I got the opportunity, and that was my mindset,” Willekes said. “I wanted to play at the highest level, knew I could and was going to do everything I could to make that dream a reality.”

During his podium time at Big Ten Media Days on Thursday, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio described Willekes’ career arc, noting how the now 6-foot-4, 262-pounder went from linebacker to tight end before finally ending up on the defensive line. Willekes played exactly four snaps during his first two seasons in East Lansing before becoming a starter in year three.

Neither Willekes nor Glasgow were evaluated or ranked by Rivals coming out of high school. Whether you consider them late bloomers or overlooked, the lack of stars and the lack of scholarships did not deter their eventual success at the highest level of collegiate football.

“I’m not broken up about it at all,” Glasgow said. “I understand that (Michigan) wanted to see me produce on the field before they would basically write me a check for free tuition. I was happy to earn it and happy about the way things have gone.”

Not every high school player who fails to land a scholarship offer was overlooked, and all the drive and self-belief in the world may not produce collegiate success. Examples like Willekes and Glasgow, though, continue to motivate throngs of young players who have to take a different route to college than their highly rated and heavily recruited peers.

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