Keeanu Benton isn't interested in talking about the NFL or NIL. UW's junior nose tackle is focused on making more plays.

Jeff Potrykus
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Wisconsin nose tackle Keeanu Benton is hoping to get more playing time in the nickel defense this season.

MADISON – Keeanu Benton doesn’t have a taste for alphabet soup.


Yes, Wisconsin’s mammoth junior nose tackle started dreaming of playing in that league long before he attended Janesville Craig High School.

But for now, Benton is trying to keep that dream in storage.

“I just need to keep my head on straight,” he said. “I feel I’m on the right route.”


Sure, a player with the talent and personality of the 6-foot-4, 317-pound Benton could profit off his Name, Image and Likeness if he chose.

But for now, Benton isn’t interested.

“I’m just really focused on school and football,” he said. “All that NIL stuff can wait. We didn’t have it in previous years so that doesn’t matter now.

“I’m not trying to build a brand or anything like that.”

What he is trying to do is help UW’s defense shut down foes and help his team win a Big Ten title.

“We (coaches) expect and his teammates expect a ton from him,” head coach Paul Chryst said after practice Tuesday. “I think that comes from respect. Huge, huge respect for Keeanu.”

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Benton has started 11 games and played in a total of 20 in his two seasons at UW. Nose tackles aren’t necessarily judged by the individual numbers they record but Benton knows he made more plays behind the line of scrimmage in 2019 than he did last season.

Benton recorded two sacks and four tackles for loss in 13 games as a freshman. He did not record a sack or a tackle for loss last season.

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard estimates UW played a 2-4-5 nickel alignment about 70% of the time last season, though Benton generally played in a three-man front.

“I knew all the base (defense),” he said of the playbook, “but nickel I was a little wishy-washy.”

One goal for the 2021 season is to get on the field more in the 2-4-5.

“There’s a lot more things to know,” Benton said of the 2-4-5. “Being in the middle is way easier. I like playing (nose) tackle. But I like being on the field a lot as well.

“I’ll try doing both.”

Benton and end Matt Henningsen worked on the top unit when UW lined up in a 2-4-5 on Tuesday.

To be blunt, Benton at times was unblockable. He blew up back-to-back running plays in 11-on-11 work and put left tackle Logan Brown, who is 6-6 and 311, on his back with a ferocious pass-rush.

Ross Kolodziej, entering his first season as defensive line coach after heading the team’s strength and conditioning, plans to use camp to test Benton’s readiness in the 2-4-5.

“We’ve got to put him in those situations in practice,” Kolodziej said. “In terms of pass rush, we’re going to be looking for the best four up front.  They’ll get the opportunity to prove it.

“He has flashed. He has that capability. It is going to be us trying to find those matchups that can play into those strengths that he brings to the table.

“It’s ultimately going to be on him to show consistently that he is in that top-four pass-rush group.”

Benton, who possesses an intriguing mix of size, strength and burst, didn’t envision that as his role when he was in youth leagues.

His father was a basketball fan; Keeanu wasn’t.

“I liked football,” he said. “I thought: ‘These guys are hitting each other.’

“Me being younger … I wanted to be a quarterback. Everyone wants to be a quarterback.”

His father let his young but already sturdy 9-year-old son know that quarterback wasn’t in his future.

“So then I had to watch the big boys,” Benton said.

Benton appears to be ready to join the big boys this season.

“From my vantage point, he will do anything for this team,” Chryst said. "He is a great teammate and obviously we think he is talented. Really believe he is a relentless worker and a guy who is open to coaching and open to (doing) anything for this team.

“So you’ve got a talented guy who cares a ton about it. He is willing to, and I think everyone wants him, to be one of those leaders.”