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Benton has a strong grasp on trench fighting
Second-round draft pick's wrestling background serves him well
By Dale Lolley  May 18, 2023

Keeanu Benton was made for hand-to-hand combat.

At just a shade under 6-foot-4 and 309 pounds, he cuts an imposing figure on the football field. He was just as imposing on the wrestling mat.

Benton has an extensive background in wrestling at the high school level, twice finishing as a state runner-up at heavyweight at Joseph A. Craig High School in Janesville, Wis., where he compiled a 127-8 record in his career.

Benton's background in wrestling might not be as extensive as that of former Steelers offensive lineman Carlton Haselrig, a six-time NCAA champion at Pitt-Johnstown, but it's still served him well.

Benton transferred what he learned on the mat to the football field and found that the two sports meshed well, a big reason why he quit playing baseball after his freshman year in high school to focus his efforts.

"I started wrestling in sixth grade, before I started playing football," Benton said. "Wrestling was something I saw myself getting better at. My best friend and I were talking to each other, like 'I can be a better wrestler.' That's what kind of drove our friendship. We both went out. He didn't last too long, but I fell in love with it. I saw myself getting better and then I went out for football. I saw how football could connect with wrestling."

Well enough for Benton to be offered a football scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.

And despite his love of wrestling, Benton knew his future lay on the football field.

"Wrestling helped me more with football, for sure," Benton said when asked if one sport helped him more with the other. "That's kind of why I wanted to do college football. I feel that I can wrestle on the football field. I can underhook. I can slam somebody. I also like to hit. You get the best of both worlds in football."

Benton also was good enough at the sport that the Steelers selected him in the second round of the NFL Draft with an eye on placing him at nose tackle – where he not only wrestles one player, but often can wind up taking on two offensive blockers.

But one of the things that attracted the Steelers to Benton was his flexibility. He understands leverage and is light on his feet for such a big man.

They felt he can be more than just a run-stuffing nose tackle.

"I think we'll start him probably inside as a nose and see what he can do as a 3 or a 4 for us," Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said after the team selected Benton with the 49th pick in the draft.

"He's a big body but he's not a two-down guy. So, he'll have some chance to be a guy that can play on third-down and do some things in terms of penetrating and rushing and all those things. We'll probably start him inside as a nose and let him grow into it and see what he does. But he's not strictly that."

Tell that to some of the draftniks out there.

Benton improved his sack totals from 2.5 as a junior to 4.5 as a senior and also doubled his tackles for a loss from 5.0 in 2021 to 10.0 in 2022, but there was a narrative among some draft analysts that his pass rushing ability wouldn't translate to the NFL.

His college coach, Ross Kolodziej, couldn't disagree more vehemently.

Kolodziej, now at Stanford, was Wisconsin's strength coach when Benton arrived on campus in Madison, Wis., in 2019 and started six of the Badgers' 13 games as a true freshman.

But the 2001 seventh-round draft pick out of Wisconsin by the Giants who spent a decade in professional football – including as a defensive lineman for the Vikings in 2006 under then-defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin – knows what it takes to play in the NFL.

And Kolodziej, now the defensive line coach at Stanford, immediately saw Benton had what it takes.

"Initially, I was the strength coach when he first came in," Kolodziej said. "I didn't get a chance to go on the road and recruit him. I knew about him because the AD/basketball coach down there (Ben McCormick) was a backup quarterback, we played together at Wisconsin. That's how I really heard about him, was through him and him bringing him up. When you first saw the kid, you were like, 'Damn, he looks like and NFL-ready body right now, frame-wise.'"

And it didn't take long for the freshman to make an impact.

Despite being the first athlete from his high school to go to a Division I program in any sport in 30 years, Benton had 12 tackles, including four for a loss, and two sacks as a true freshman defensive tackle.

When Kolodziej took over as the Badgers' defensive line coach in 2021, Benton took off and became a dominant player.

"Anybody that says (he can't rush the passer), clearly didn't watch his tape. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but I would put his QB hits and pressures against any interior d-lineman," Kolodziej said. "If you watch the tape, he is constantly harassing the quarterback. I know he had over 10 QB hits, not including sacks. Anybody that claims that, it's a lazy analysis that somebody else put out there, maybe from when he was a sophomore, right?

"The last two years, he really had explosive growth as a pass rusher. That would be something that ruffles my feathers, when people say, 'Oh no, he can't rush the passer.' You're not watching any tape. If you watch tape, he will consistently prove week in and week out. He can get to the quarterback."

Benton doesn't believe that, either. Though he certainly likes to prove his doubters wrong.

"I feel like it is," Benton said when asked if his pass rush ability is underrated. "Keep letting it be underrated. I'm going to let my stats talk."

The confidence that Benton oozes was fostered on the wrestling mat.

There's a team aspect to free-style wrestling, but when you step on the mat, it's just you and your opponent.

Lose, and you've got nobody to blame but yourself. Likewise, the wins are all about what you did out there.

That's something Benton, the youngest of La'Tasha Benton's three children, loved about the sport.

"It's win your one-on-one, same with football," Benton said. "On the wrestling mat, you can't blame anybody else for what you're doing out there. You're going one-on-one and there's going to be a winner and there's going to be a loser. And I don't like to lose.

"I think that translates over because you do have one-on-ones and you've got to win your one-on-one matchups in the NFL. I think that's a good thing. And then it's just that competitive edge that wrestling gives you, conditioning. The practices are hard. The meets are a little bit easier, but the practices are hard. You're running around conditioning. It's no different than football."

Benton loves the physicality of both sports. And it was something he shared with his teammates at Wisconsin.

During his senior season, Benton took it upon himself to take other players on the Badgers' defensive front Wisconsin's wrestling room for workouts, something he had done prior to that by himself.

"I feel like it helped me keep up my conditioning, also with flexibility and stuff like that," Benton said. "I talked to Nick (Herbig) and got the outside linebackers to come up, the defensive line. We kind of wrestled around, and I showed them how it correlates with football. It took off from there."

Kolodziej said the move shows Benton's natural leadership and drive.

"It was impressive the last couple of years, and it's a credit to him," Kolodziej said of Benton's overall improvement. "This last offseason, every Wednesday, unprompted by anyone on the coaching staff, he got the d-line together to go up into the wrestling room and work on mobility and just some different escape moves, things like that.

"Those are all kind of elite-level characteristics in terms of self-motivation outside of the box. Working on weaknesses. To me that translates big-time to the next level because there's nobody any more to babysit you. There's not a lot of oversight now like there used to be because of the way the rules are in the NFL, so you have to be self-motivated, and Keeanu is that."

He also won't be alone in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers, of course, employ former Badgers star T.J. Watt and defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk. They also selected Herbig in the fourth round of this draft, as well.

Wisconsin's 3-4 defense had some similarities to what the Steelers do defensively, meaning the Steelers don't have to project what former Badgers will do in their defense.

The Steelers also got a very good look at Benton at the Senior Bowl, where defensive backs coach Grady Brown served as defensive coordinator for the National Team, while outside linebackers coach Denzel Martin served in that role on Brown's staff.

They got to see Benton's heavy hands – a product of his time on the wrestling mat – up close on a daily basis.

"When you watch a guy that is explosive, he is heavy handed," said Austin. "He gets extension on guys, I think when you see those things and you see that he can roll his hips, I think (defensive line coach Karl) Dunbar and those guys do a great job of teaching guys rush plans and how to use their strengths to become a better rusher. I think he has some of the baseline abilities and that's what we see,and we are counting on him to be a run stopper and get some bonus out of him with being a pass rusher."

The hand usage is a carry over from his wrestling background, as is the ability roll his hips fluidly.

"I feel like I can feel leverage a lot better, hand placement," Benton said. "Not a lot of people can grab wrists and stuff like that, know the aiming points with their hands. I feel that definitely helps."

Much as it will help Benton and his family to have some fellow Badgers in Pittsburgh.

While at Wisconsin, La'Tasha Benton formed a friendship with Robyn Herbig.

"It's crazy. Keeanu's mom and I would talk at games last season, 'Wouldn't it be awesome if the boys played together?'" Robyn Herbig said. "That speaks so much to the Wisconsin culture. The parent culture was awesome. It killed us to leave. Absolutely, we're excited for the kids, but we had such great friends, and they were like family to us, the parents there. To have the Bentons there, Keeanu's family, is going to be so special. To hopefully get to know the Watts, Isaiahh Loudermilk, the Badger families, that's so special, as well."

That his mom will have someone in Pittsburgh going through a similar experience isn't lost on Benton.

"Definitely, especially helping my mom get through this," Benton said. "It's definitely as stressful for her as it is for me. She doesn't know what's going on. I'm the baby of the family. Mama Herbig definitely helps out a lot keeping my mom sane."

He'll also have plenty of mentorship from inside the Steelers' defensive line room.

Benton is the highest-drafted Steelers defensive lineman since the team selected Stephon Tuitt with the 46th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.

He'll get an opportunity to learn from veteran captain Cam Heyward.

"Cam's really good," said Austin. "He'll show him some tough love,but he knows when to put an arm around a guy and bring him along with him and I think that's the neat thing about Cam. He has been in this business a long time. He was that guy, 100 years ago, but he was that guy, so he knows what it's like to be a young guy coming in a room with some really veteran players, so he will know when to push him but also know when to put his arm around a guy and say 'Hey, come on man, let's go.'"

Benton isn't someone who needs a lot of "tough love." He expects to succeed. And he wants to be great.

"I feel like just my competitive edge," Benton said when asked what drives him. "I don't like to see people do better than me. If I know I can better, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability. Just being around the right group of people and then getting under the wings of the vets, it was awesome. I just kept pushing."

It's why every time J.J. Watt or T.J. Watt would return to Wisconsin, Benton would pick their brains. He wants to know everything so he can improve his own game."He's a first-round talent all day long," Kolodziej said. "You watch the tape, and it's not just his production, but his disruption. A lot of times, an interior guy doesn't get a lot of love for creating knock backs and getting pullers off the spot and chewing up double teams or getting PBUs, getting in throwing windows. There's a lot of untrackable data points, in my opinion. That disruption also creates a lot of value."

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