EAST LANSING - When you turn the football over three times and that leads directly to points for the opponent and when you commit nine penalties for 97 yards in a 38-18 loss like Michigan State did last week against Notre Dame, standout performances tend to get lost.
But not in the case of former walk-on Kenny Willekes.
The sophomore defensive end, despite going up against a second left tackle in as many games who has received recognition as a future NFL player, is beginning to make a name for himself at his position and in MSU’s defense.
And while Willekes wasn’t there postgame to talk about his performance against the Irish, a couple of teammates had his back when it came time to recognizing his play last week which produced 10 tackles. He finished second among Spartan defenders in stops, including three solos in which Notre Dame runners where stopped twice for no gain and once for one yard.
“Kenny Willekes had a great game and he’s a very resilient player,’’ said junior linebacker Andrew McDowell. “He brings that energy to practice and to the games. He’s a guy that you want on your side in a dogfight so it’s good to see him play well and other guys like (freshman linebacker) Antjuan Simmons. That’s young guys playing pretty well and making some solid tackles. That’s what we’re going to need, everybody stepping up to play at their highest level so we can get where we want to get this year.’’
Willekes has 15 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries and a pass breakup through three contests.
“I think he’s played well thus far," said defensive ends coach Mark Snyder. "Through three games, I’ve been pleased with that whole group. We just gotta keep coming.”
Willekes' ability to disengage from blocks and close quickly with short-area bursts, plus his grappling-hook arms, has helped him become a prolific tackler for a defensive linemen, through one quarter of the season.
He's strong at the point of attack when taking on blocks when run plays are sent to his side.
He ranks sixth on the team in tackles, which is somewhat uncommon for a defensive end. When he has a chance to make a play at or near the line of scrimmage, he's finishing them, or bouncing the ball carrier to his teammates.
Next, he needs to turn that closing quickness and handy work into sacks.
Willekes held his own against an All-American candidate in Notre Dame left tackle Mike McGlinchey. And when Willekes wasn’t shining as a solo act, he was more than just a complementary piece on seven other assisted tackles. In his seven assisted tackled, he combined with teammates to limit forward progress to three yards or less four times.
Senior linebacker and captain Chris Frey wasn’t surprised, and he’s already expecting more as the Spartans (2-1) turn their focus to the Iowa Hawkeyes in their Big Ten opener at 4 p.m. on Saturday.
“Kenny has a tremendous work ethic, puts a lot of work into his craft every single week and has a great mindset going into that,’’ Frey said. “That’s something that really going to help him moving forward.
“I think the sky’s the limit for that kid. He’s got the frame to put even more weight on than what he’s already has. He came in as a walk-on and his goal was to be a scholarship guy and a starter, and he pushed himself to the limit and look where he’s at now. He’s dominating. I feel like for three weeks now he’s done a very good job of holding his own. He might not be the biggest or the strongest or the fastest d-end out there but he’s going to work his butt off every single play to make up for that.’’
UNCOMFORTABLE BUT NECESSARY
The Spartans committed more penalties against Notre Dame than they had combined in their first two games, victories over Bowling Green and Western Michigan.
Dowell expected Dantonio to put the penalties on the big screen in the film room for the Spartans to view as an entire team during this week’s practice.
“So that everybody sees them in front of the team,” Dowell said. “I had one.”
Dowell was flagged for a late hit on the QB after he handed the ball to a running back for a 30-yard run. Dowell hit the QB because he wasn’t sure whether the QB had completed the handoff or if he might keep it on a bootleg. By the time Dowell committed to hitting the QB, it was viewed as late an unnecessary by the officials. But Dowell made no excuses.
“We’ve got to be better and more disciplined and not get those penalties,” he said. “We’ve just got to be better as a team.’’