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Michigan State Player to Watch: Kenny Willekes

The Veteran DE is expected to wreak havoc on Big Ten backfields

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 08 Michigan State at Arizona State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the Illini play at Michigan State, Illini offensive coordinator Rod Smith will have his hands full trying to scheme around Kenny Willekes, a defensive end who should garner All-Big Ten honors and could easily be the Big Ten Player of the Year. Willekes put up mind-boggling numbers in 2018:

[Willekes] had 78 tackles last season, including 20.5 for a loss, 8.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He was named the Big Ten’s Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year and a second team All-American by the Walter Camp Football Foundation, Football Writers Association of America and Sporting News.

Willekes will benefit from having an All-American caliber teammate on the defensive line in Raequan William, a 6-foot-4, 303-pound defensive tackle who, in 2018, posted 10.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks, along with five pass break-ups and one forced fumble. With Williams occupying double teams up the middle, expect Willekes to come off the edge and feast on Big Ten quarterbacks and running backs.

When scheming around Willekes, and the Michigan State defensive line in general, Smith will likely try to use swing passes, bubble screens, and jet sweeps to get to the perimeter. If the Illini can get their play makers — like Corbin, Smalling, and Epstein — going north-south while MSU’s defensive lineman are going east-west, then Willekes can be neutralized.