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If Keeanu Benton has his way, Big Ten Conference offensive linemen are going to see a lot more of him this fall.

Benton has spelled good things for the Badgers and difficult assignments for opponents through his two seasons on the University of Wisconsin’s defensive line. At 6-foot-4 and 317 pounds, Benton is a load to handle for just about any offensive lineman, but it’s his quick first two steps that truly separate him.

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He can close the distance between him and a blocker and throw his hands into the opponent’s chest before his feet are set, sending the lineman into the backfield and disrupting plays. The problem has been keeping Benton on the field. He played 173 of UW’s 438 defensive snaps (39.4%) last season, per Pro Football Focus. He played 245 of 876 defensive snaps (27.9%) during the 2019 season.

Getting Benton more involved in the team’s nickel defense — the personnel package UW used on nearly 70% of plays last season, according to defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard — was a priority this offseason. Benton, a junior from Janesville, has been paired with Matt Henningsen on the first-team nickel group with strong results through the first week of training camp.

“I’m definitely building that confidence,” Benton said Friday.

“I can do all the work I want outside the field, but when you’re in between those lines and in those pads, the game picks up a little quicker. In the beginning, I was still wrapping my head around it. I knew what I needed to do, but it was just on the how-to. Sometimes it’s not going to fall out like it will in the playbook, so you’ve got to figure out how to maneuver around it.”

In practices that reporters have been able to watch, Benton has been knifing through the offensive line from both his usual 0-technique spot over the center and from the 3-technique position on the outside shoulder of guards, which is where he’ll mostly line up in nickel packages.

He blew up a run play early and applied quick pressure on a pass in an 11-on-11 session Wednesday. He followed that with impressive wins in one-on-ones during Friday’s practice.

Senior guard Josh Seltzner, who now has to block Benton one-on-one more often as his role expands, says he knows Benton will be a problem for opposing linemen.

“I think he’s one of the best at the position in the entire country. He’s a beast,” Seltzner said.

“He’s someone that’s going to make me better in practice, and I’m so grateful to be able to go against someone like that. We’re pretty good friends off the field, so it’s pretty cool to be able to go against him and just feel that talent that he has. It’s definitely driving me to be better, to get my feet in the ground to be able to block someone as good as him.”

Playing more in nickel packages certainly will increase the number of pass-rush snaps Benton has this season, which could help the Badgers generate more pressure without relying on the linebackers. Benton was on the field for just 82 pass-rushing snaps last year.

Benton told reporters at media days that playing the 3-technique requires more agility and more study of the playbook — UW runs more line stunts out of nickel, which will have Benton rushing at an angle in an attempt to create lanes for himself or teammates. He added more speed and quickness training to his workouts this summer, and more conditioning to be able to sustain his energy on long drives.

Watch the Badgers’ defensive linemen at practice, and one eventually will see Benton holding court. His personality pulls teammates in and his 1,000-watt smile is visible from halfway up the stands.

Attitude and energy are two areas in which Benton believes he can add to the team regardless of the snaps he plays.

“Football can be stressful at times, and I just like being that light in the room,” Benton said. “I’ve got (feedback) like when people see me, it just lightens their day up and I love hearing that. Whatever I can do to make my team better in any aspect, I’ll do it.”

UW coach Paul Chryst said expectations are high for Benton in what could be his last season in Madison.

“I think that comes from respect — huge, huge respect for Keeanu,” Chryst said.

“And obviously we think he’s talented and really believe he’s a relentless worker and a guy that’s open to coaching and open to anything for this team. So you got a talent, a guy that cares a ton about it, and he’s willing to be and I think everyone wants him to be one of those leaders.

“What we’re expecting is a lot from him, but I think it’s all in his wheelhouse.”


This article originally ran on madison.com.

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