MADISON, WISCONSIN – OCTOBER 30: Keeanu Benton #95 of the Wisconsin Badgers celebrates after a fumble recovery during the first half against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Camp Randall Stadium on October 30, 2021 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Wisconsin Badgers NT Keeanu Benton is college football’s best-kept secret

Wisconsin Football returns star nose tackle Keeanu Benton, who will be one of Jim Leonhard’s defensive focal points and leaders in 2022.

Madison, Wis. – Despite losing eight starters off last season’s top-ranked defensive unit, Wisconsin football expects to be among the nation’s best again in 2022. One of the biggest reasons comes from the return of senior nose tackle Keeanu Benton, whose been one of the most underappreciated stars I can remember. 

As a junior, Benton registered 25 tackles, 21 total pressures, 16 stops, seven QB hits, five TFL, 2.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries, and a pass deflection. 

At season’s end, the Wisconsin native was named a second-team All-Big Ten pick by the coaches and honorable mention by the media. 

With 32 career games under his belt, Benton is arguably the most indispensable player on Wisconsin’s defense – even if the counting stats don’t reflect it.

The impact of the 6-foot-4, 315-pound nose tackle goes way beyond the box score. Benton frequently takes on double teams to free up gaps, allowing Wisconsin’s linebacking core to make impact plays in the opposing team’s backfield. 

If I were a betting man (and I am), Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn would probably tell you he made their lives much more manageable last season. 

Without the Janesville, Wisconsin native serving as the focal point of Jim Leonhard’s defense, all moving parts have less freedom to make plays.

Benton doesn’t just eat blocks

That said, Benton is more than just a sawed-off tree stump that Wisconsin uses to eat up blocks. His rare athleticism for the position gives coach Leonhard the versatility to maximize matchups and utilize him as a pass-rusher.

According to PFF, Benton finished last season with a pass-rushing grade of 74.9, good for fifth highest among all Wisconsin players and third among those returning in 2022. At times, he was an absolute bully in the trenches.

Now the elder statesman, Benton is leading by example

Benton’s humble nature and tireless work ethic have become one of the senior nose tackle’s defining qualities as an upperclassman – helping the younger players develop winning work habits.

“Really mastering all the things that require no talent and doing it at a (high) level,” Ross Kolodziej, Badgers defensive line coach, said in regards to Benton. “He can demand that of anyone else in the room, and his game is really becoming above reproach.”

“Impressive to see him grow physically but also (mentally) and earning the respect of his teammates with how he practices and puts it on tape.”

Wisconsin football coaches know what they have in Benton; it’s the rest of the country that hasn’t figured out he’s a star – but they will.

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