SPRINGDALE, Ark. — Michigan State fifth-year senior defensive end Kenny Willekes completed his improbable journey from walk-on to winning the Burlsworth Trophy on Monday.
Joined by his grandparents and Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio, Willekes received the award during a reception hosted by the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation in conjunction with the Springdale Rotary Club at the Springdale Convention Center.
The annual award, named in honor of Brandon Burlsworth, is given to the nation’s most outstanding player who began his career as a walk on. Without one Division I scholarship offer, Burlsworth walked on to the Arkansas Razorback team in 1994, worked his way to being a three-year starter and was eventually named an All-American in 1998. Burlsworth was selected as the 63rd overall pick by the Indianapolis Colts in the 1999 NFL draft, but was tragically killed in a car accident 11 days later. The Burlsworth Foundation was created in his memory and supports the physical and spiritual needs of children, in particular those children who have limited opportunities.
As part of the festivities, the finalists, families and guests had a private showing of the movie “Greater” on Sunday night, the movie that tells Burlsworth’s story and about his life and journey.
“It’s a huge honor to win this award. Obviously, Brandon (Burlsworth) has quite a legacy,” Willekes said. “Watching that movie made me realize even more how he impacted people off the field, not just on the field. It’s an honor to carry on his legacy.”
According to several Burlsworth Foundation officials, Coach Dantonio was the first-ever head coach to be at the award ceremony.
“If we ever have a player up for a national award, I’m going to make sure that I’m there. With Kenny, this is a prestigious honor and I knew I was going to make that journey down here with him, win or lose or whatever. He’s a tremendous young man and I wanted to be there for him,” Dantonio said. “He’s just a tremendous person. I’m very excited about this national award. It’s an opportunity for him to take a step forward in his life. Very, very excited for it.”
A chemistry major, Willekes earned a scholarship in the spring of 2017 and hasn't looked back since. He entered the program as a walk-on linebacker for the 2015 season but has emerged as one of the top pass rushers in the nation during his career.
Willekes ranks first among all active FBS players with 1.27 tackles for loss per game and has 49.5 career tackles for loss overall. He set the school’s all-time tackles for loss record on Senior Day vs. Maryland on Nov. 30 when he recorded 2.5 TFLs against the Terrapins.
Last week, Willekes became just the third Spartan defensive end to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors twice. He also became the first defensive player in school history to win the Governor’s Award (team MVP) two times.
Willekes leads MSU and ranks tied for fourth in the Big Ten with a career-high nine sacks and is fourth overall in school history with 24.5 sacks. He also ranks first among all Big Ten defensive linemen with 69 tackles and has 14.5 tackles for loss this season. In 39 career games, including 37 starts, he has 220 tackles overall.
Willekes was named the National Defensive Player of the Week by the Walter Camp Football Foundation and also the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for his impressive performance in the season opener vs. Tulsa. Willekes scored his first career touchdown after teaming up on a sack with Raequan Williams [msuspartans.com] and pouncing on the fumble in the end zone to give MSU a 22-0 lead with 4:49 left in the second quarter. Earlier in the second quarter, he recovered a fumble after a bad Tulsa snap to set up an MSU field goal. He also had a 1-yard tackle for loss in the second quarter and a 2-yard sack in the fourth quarter. Overall, Willekes led the Spartans with seven tackles, including 2.5 TFLs (6 yards) and 1.5 sacks (5 yards).
After leading the Big Ten with 20.5 tackles for loss as a junior, Willekes was named the 2018 Smith-Brown Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and a first-team All-American by The Athletic. Willekes became the second Spartan to win the award (Shilique Calhoun in 2013), which is named after MSU's Bubba Smith and Penn State's Courtney Brown and given to the Big Ten's most outstanding defensive lineman, and was the first Spartan defensive end to earn first-team All-America honors since Robaire Smith in 1998. Willekes was also named to the All-Big Ten First Team by the coaches, media, Associated Press, Athlon Sports, ESPN.com, Phil Steele and Pro Football Focus, and earned second-team All-America honors from the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA), Phil Steele, Sporting News and Walter Camp Football Foundation. Unfortunately, Willekes suffered a broken fibula in the 2018 Redbox Bowl against Oregon, but he fully recovered in time for the 2019 season to once again earn first-team All-Big Ten honors.
A 6-4, 260-pound native of Rockford, Michigan, Willekes collected a league-best 20.5 tackles for loss in 2018, good for second most in a Spartan single season and eighth most in the FBS in 2018. He also led the Spartans with 8.5 sacks, which ranked tied for fifth in the Big Ten. He registered a career-high 78 tackles to rank first among all defensive lineman in the nation, including a career-high 13 against Ohio State on Nov. 3.
After playing in just one game as a redshirt freshman in 2016, Willekes had a breakthrough season as a sophomore in 2017, earning third-team All-Big Ten honors with a team-leading 14.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
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