Barring a first-round NFL draft grade, Keeanu Benton appears set to return to Wisconsin for the 2022 season
MADISON – Keeanu Benton isn’t afraid to acknowledge that getting playing time as a freshman at Wisconsin in 2019 sparked a dream.
The talented nose tackle from Janesville Craig High School planned to play three seasons and then jump to the NFL.
“That was just my young mind talking,” the junior told reporters Tuesday. “When the time comes, you have to sit down and (see) if you have everything that it takes to make that next step.
“Because once you make it, you can’t come back.”
Barring receiving a surprising first-round grade from the NFL’s College Advisory Committee, Benton plans to return to UW for the 2022 season.
“That has been on my mind this past week,” he explained. “I’ve been talking with family, my parents especially. Talking to coaches. Just thinking about my next steps. At this point I’m thinking about coming back. I’ve got room to improve mentally and physically...
“This isn’t the year to leave early. It is a big class. It (lessens) my chances of getting drafted.”
Benton finished the regular season second among the team’s linemen in tackles with 24. He also has 2½ sacks, five tackles for loss, four hurries, two fumble recoveries and two passes broken up.
Defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej has used Benton in a three-man front or in the nickel package (2-4-5).
“My freshman and sophomore year, I didn’t play a lot of nickel,” Benton said. “When I did, I thought I would be all gassed. That didn’t happen to me much. I feel like coach Kolodziej did a great job preparing me for those moments.”
Benton added his parents have been supportive and haven’t tried to sway his decision.
“We’re not down on money,” he said, “where I absolutely need to go to the league.”
Senior safety Scott Nelson said Tuesday he will not return for a sixth season. Nelson, who redshirted in 2017, set his goal after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the 2019 opener at South Florida.
Nelson is third on the team in tackles with 58 and has broken up six passes. He has started 27 games and played in 28 at UW.
“I made up my mind before COVID, honestly,” Nelson said. “After I got hurt, I decided I’m not going to stay six years. That is better for some but for my situation, I wanted to stay for five years and then go out and try your best at the next level.”
Junior Leo Chenal, the Big Ten linebacker of the year, plans to mull his options after the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 30.
"Right now, I just want to focus as much as I can on the bowl game," Chenal said. "I want to send out the seniors on a high note. There's always time to think about possibilities."
Andy Vujnovich, who punted at Division III Dubuque for two seasons before transferring to UW in 2020, is returning next season.
He averaged 41.6 yards per punt in 2020 but improved to 45.8 yards this season. Twelve of his 46 punts this season have carried 50 yards or longer.
“It was easy for me,” said Vujnovich, a graduate of Columbus High School. “I love it here. When I first got here, I would see the Wisconsin (logo) on the wall it was like: ‘Wow. I’m here.’
“There was no doubt in my mind I wanted to come back.”
Sixth-year safety Collin Wilder, who played in 2016 and 2017 at Houston before transferring to UW, shared more details about the injury that will cause him to miss the bowl game.
“I found out last week,” he said. “Last week was tough trying to process everything.”
According to Wilder, he damaged a ligament near his spinal column on the hit in the regular-season finale at Minnesota that resulted in an ejection for targeting.
“I was ready to go back in,” he said. “My adrenaline … And then once I was ejected and I came back on the sideline and my adrenaline went away, I got really, really tight in my upper-back area.”
X-rays that night were negative but a subsequent MRI revealed the damaged ligament.
Wilder was examined by a doctor who told him he could not practice or play for six weeks.
“He said this ligament keeps your spine stable,” Wilder explained. “You need to use all six weeks to recover.
"It is unfortunate but I left the doctor thankful for no surgery and no spinal fracture."