True freshmen playing Big Ten Conference football is not the norm.
Especially on the offensive and defensive lines, where size and strength are so important.
Keeanu Benton is not your normal freshman.The 2019 Janesville Craig High graduate played an integral role for the University of Wisconsin’s Big Ten Conference West Division championship team.
The 6-foot-4, 311-pound Benton played in 13 out of 14 games for the Badgers as a nose tackle. He started six times and played immediately in the season opener at the University of South Florida, finishing with a team-leading two tackles for loss.
Benton said he got a sense early in camp that he would play valuable snaps for the Badgers despite being a true freshman.
“After our first scrimmage, my coach (defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield) let me know that I wasn’t going to redshirt and that I was going to play,” Benton said. “He didn’t tell me exactly how much I would play, because Bryson (Williams) was also in the picture, but just that I would see the field.
“I just kept working hard, and he told me that if I kept progressing at the pace that I was at, that I would definitely get to play.”
Benton’s stats were not eye-popping, but he did pick his spots well. He finished with two sacks on the season, both against Ohio State. One came during the regular-season meeting in Columbus, and the other came in the nationally televised Big Ten Championship game.
It was Benton’s background as a wrestler—he was a two-time WIAA Division 1 state runner-up at 285 pounds—that helped him thrive and gain Division I college attention on the football field at Craig. And those skills—footwork, leverage and the ability to shed blocks—certainly helped his quick transition to college football, too.
For the season, Benton finished with eight solo tackles, four assisted tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss.
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was impressed with his star pupil.
“You put on his first four or five clips and you kind of go: ‘Wow,’” Leonhard told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel during the season.
“Keeanu has got great balance and he’s got great power. And he is able to transition from different blocks. He sees things very well considering he hasn’t had many snaps.”
Benton said he has adjusted well to college life, specifically on the academic end of things. He has hit the books hard and is leaning toward getting a degree in kinesiology.
With the football season behind him, Benton is concentrating on his studies along with a dedication to the weight room.
He said he weighs about 311 right now and would like to get to 315 pounds.
“The second semester so far is much easier than the first, because I don’t have to concentrate on football as much,” Benton said. “I mean, I’m concentrating still on football, but it’s more about weight lifting and the culture of football and learning the playbook better.
“I know for me, I need to get even stronger and up my game. The first year was was great, but I want to do so much more.”
If Keeanu Benton keeps up the production and continues to impress, it’s not out of the question to think someday he’ll be playing on Sunday afternoons.