On Wednesday morning, I had the opportunity to interview Wisconsin DL Keeanu Benton during the media breakfast in Mobile, Alabama at the Senior Bowl.
Benton was tearing it up in pass rush drills and in 1-on-1s during the first day of practice, showcasing his athleticism, hand usage, and strength against opposing offensive linemen. However, Benton pulled out early before the start of team session to finish practice Tuesday, but he said there is nothing to worry about going forward in that regard.
“It was the heat,” Benton said. “I didn’t have no more liquid in me. I got lightheaded, so the trainers are basically like, ‘If you pass out… we can’t let you practice.”
The heat was the real deal yesterday. All of us sitting in the stands were sweating and getting sunburned after the clouds went away. As for Benton, who weighs 314lb, that adjustment to the heat caught him by surprise. However, he confirmed to me that he is ready to go for practice today and looks forward to showing what he can do to the NFL teams in attendance.
“I’m getting better at my pass rush,” Benton said. “I’m able to get after the quarterback. That’s one of the things that I feel like I lacked a little bit in college. So, this is my opportunity to prove that. I went to work with Chuck Smith. Yeah. So, that definitely helped a lot with my pass rush and just kind of knowing why I do the move that I do and how to change them up.”
Chuck Smith is a former NFL defensive lineman who racked up 58.5 sacks and 20 forced fumbles during his playing days and has since opened his own academy named Chuck Smith Training Systems, mentoring college and NFL players on how to improve as a pass rusher with various moves that emphasize hand usage, positioning, and leverage. Cam Heyward has worked with Smith during the offseason in years past along with former Steeler Bud Dupree. Alex Highsmith hasn’t directly worked with Smith but has watched several of his videos in an attempt to improve his pass rush the last couple of seasons.
“I think I’m pretty well-rounded, but definitely better at my run defense than pass rush,” Benton continued. “So that’s why I’m working on it. We worked on countless moves. I try to put as much in my toolbox and get to know and feel different moves as I can. My favorite move right now I’d say would be my club swim.”
Benton isn’t a pass rusher by any means, sacking the QB 4.5 times in 2022 and nine times total during his college career. Not bad numbers by any means for an interior defensive lineman, but given his size (6’3 1/2, 314lb), athleticism, and arm length (33 3/4”), he is more than capable of taking that aspect of his game to the next level to become a real force inside for NFL defenses.
“I like watching Quinnen Williams and Grady Jarrett on tape. Those two guys are really good pass rushers I choose to study.”
I then asked Benton about his experience having Steelers DB Grady Brown as his defensive coordinator down here and if he has been able to coach him up on various things during the first few days in Mobile.
“I like him,” Benton said. “I think he’s pretty straightforward. He’ll let you know if he did good or bad. He’s not going to be kind of one-sided telling you everything you did bad, but also tell you how to get better.”
I then asked him if he had an interaction with Mike Tomlin who was on the field yesterday, to which Benton responded that it was more than just a short interaction.
“I had my interview with him yesterday,” Benton said. “He just kind of came up and told me like I was on their radar and then told me he coached my defensive line coach [Ross Kolodziej] at Minnesota and he was just basically telling me to tell him he said hi.”
Benton confirmed he had a formal meeting with the Steelers yesterday and for those who like the “Blue’s Clues”, Tomlin was the DC for the Vikings back when Wisconsin DL coach Kolodziej was on the roster.
I ended my conversation asking Benton what it would be like to wear the Black and Gold and play for Coach Tomlin in the pros.
“I’ll be blessed to go anywhere, to be honest,” Benton answered.
Alex Kozora earlier posted a video explaining why Keeanu Benton would be the perfect fit for the Pittsburgh Steelers based on what they look for in defensive linemen. Well, it appears he was dead-on with his analysis because the Steelers have shown a heavy amount of interest in him thus far, having GM Omar Khan and Tomlin spending a lot of time watching the defensive line during practice and having pulled him aside for a formal interview last night.
The Steelers need to address the defensive line this offseason, and Benton would be a great fit in terms of adding a young, but experienced player that is a perfect fit in Pittsburgh’s system and is only growing as a pass rusher. The Combine and Pro Day will be important events as well for Benton in this process, but it’s safe to say he’s squarely in their sights as a potential solution along the interior of the defensive line in 2023.