Matt Waldman’s RSP contributor Scott Bischoff profiles the rare combination of skills found in the game of 2019 NFL Draft prospect, Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes.
There are times while watching film of college football players when you feel you are watching something special. I get that vibe while watching film of Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes.
There should be much excitement about his future in the NFL as he wins in a variety of ways and plays with incredible intensity and effort. There is so much to like about his game and the way he goes about his business on the field.
Willekes regularly wrecks plays in the backfield before they get started. He consistently tosses much bigger players around, because he understands the concept of leverage.
He constantly displays aggressive energy and intensity and never stops moving. He is fun to watch, but he is just getting started, and his future is incredibly bright.
Scouting is looking at physical traits and determining how they fit into today’s NFL game. High-level athletic ability? Check.
Explosiveness and length? Check and check.
First-step quickness and hand usage? Willekes is excellent in these areas as well.
Willekes is a well-rounded defender capable of applying pressure on the passer while also being a very difficult player to block as a run defender, and that is a fantastic combination. He is quick enough to threaten the edge, and he wins with an inside counter move when a tackle oversets expecting speed.
Willekes has outrageously quick and heavy hands, and when added to his long arms, he can stay clean and unblocked which allows him to run through blocks. This diminishes the amount of ground he needs to cover to get to the passer and makes him a difficult assignment for offensive linemen.
Willekes is a dominant run defender capable of anchoring a defensive line and setting an edge with the power to redirect a runner back inside. Because he plays a relentless style, he is always chasing the ball and will run down plays from behind. He is effective whether the ball goes toward him, or away from him, and his advanced hand usage and power allow him to shed blocks with ease.
Willekes likely lacks elite speed, and that may be the only knock on his game. However, he counters that with effort and instincts to find the ball. Willekes is an outrageously effective football player, and his well-rounded set of skills and physical style set him apart from most college pass rushers.
Below are a few videos that highlight some of the strengths of Willekes’ game as a pass rusher and why he is such a problematic assignment for offensive linemen.
Willekes’ Pass Rush
Here’s Willekes lined up at the defensive end position at the bottom of the formation against Ohio State’s right tackle. Although Willeke’s speed may not be top notch for the NFL, that’s not as great of an issue in the Big 10. The tackle oversets, which is a sign that he’s worried about Willekes’ speed.
With the tackle oversetting, Willekes works the counter to the inside. Notice how Willekes uses his hands to swipe the lineman’s hands away to stay unblocked. His acceleration is also good enough to close on the quarterback and force a poor throw.
Here’s another rep with Willekes in the wide-nine alignment against the right tackle. Note how wide the tackle’s first step is when he starts his slide into his pass set.
Willekes takes advantage of the space created from the wide-nine look and blows through the tackle with ease. Ohio State has another wide-open receiver on this play but Willekes’ pressure forces the ball out early.
This Buckeyes’ play below is doomed to fail from the start. The line allows Willekes a free release off the edge. The left guard is supposed to come across the formation to kick out Willekes, but Willekes is too quick for the guard and beats the lineman to the corner for the sack.
Willekes’ Run Defense
When Willekes wants to be a bully it’s something to behold because of his powerful hands and understanding of leverage.
Willekes is lined up at the bottom of the formation lined up between the right tackle and a tight end. The Buckeyes run an option, and quarterback Dwayne Haskins hands the ball off to the running back with an expectation that Willekes will get blocked inside.
Watch what Willekes does to the tight end to shed the block and win the gap.
Willekes’ physical brand of football leads to this tackle — and it’s what the NFL expects from a run defender along the edge.
Willekes’ first-step quickness is again at the forefront of this run play. He’s lined up at the top of the formation just outside the left tackle. As the ball is snapped, Willekes jumps inside, blowing between the guard and tackle for an easy stop in the backfield.
Although the left tackle gets his right hand on him, Willekes is too powerful to get pushed off his line at that point.
When he needs it, Willekes plays with a lot of power and leverage. He’s lined up below as the defensive end outside the left tackle. At the snap, he goes with one arm into the tackle’s chest.
Watch the play a few more times and note that Willekes’ hand is above his eyes — a key to playing with leverage in this exchange — and he rides out the left tackle, tossing the lineman onto his back.
Here is another display of the sheer power and leverage from Willekes. The Buckeyes try to block him with a tight end, and he blows up that strategy on his way to the running back, putting a quick end to the play.
This is not only a good display of strength but awareness of the play design and how to turn an obstacle into a weapon of his own design. When a college defensive end can stuff the run and pressure the passer, it makes him an exciting NFL prospect.
Willekes is a scheme-versatile defender who can anchor a 4-3 defense as an edge-setting run stopper that can also harass the quarterback because of his quickness, tenacity, and the power in his hands. He can also play as a stand-up pass rusher in a 3-4 scheme because he can set the edge and he’s quick enough to threaten gaps and reach the quarterback.
Still a junior, it’s unknown at this time whether he’ll declare for the 2019 NFL Draft. Regardless, teams will covet his game. He is a phenomenal college football player and will be a fascinating prospect to watch if he stays at Michigan State through his senior season.
To say I’m bullish on Willekes is a massive understatement. Whether he declares this year or next, Willekes offers a versatile game that stands out from his peers.
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