The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t hide their interest in Keeanu Benton, the Wisconsin defensive lineman, throughout the NFL’s offseason. It was at the 2023 Senior Bowl where the Steelers told Benton he was “on their radar”, and pre-draft visits also added to the fact of the team’s interest in Benton.
Therefore, when the Steelers drafted Benton in the 2nd Round of the 2023 NFL Draft, it shouldn’t have shocked many people.
With Benton now in the fold, what most Steelers fans might not know would be the details of what got Benton to Pittsburgh in the first place. While many NFL prospects will talk about specific teams they played for growing up, Benton spoke about his wrestling background and how it helped him develop as a player.
“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.”
The hand-to-hand aspect of Benton’s game is one thing, but the conditioning which is required for wrestling can also be of great benefit to players. Benton kept up that conditioning at Wisconsin, even after he stopped wrestling.
“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 [to the Wisconsin wrestling room], the defensive line. We kind of wrestled around, and I showed them how it correlates with football. It took off from there.”
If you are like me, and didn’t grow up with a wrestling background, you might be interested in how wrestling could actually benefit a player getting ready for their first NFL season. There’s a lot more than just conditioning.
“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.”
While at Wisconsin, his coach Ross Kolodziej saw Benton as a player who can do it all. You can imagine the confusion he had when he heard many draft experts and analysts suggesting Benton struggled with the pass rush aspect of the job.
“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 heard the same criticism of his game throughout the pre-draft process, and he remains confident in his ability. In fact, he called his pass rush ability underrated.
“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.”
That sounds a lot like another player who has used a chip on his shoulder to propel him to All-Pro status. That would be Benton’s new line mate in Cam Heyward. If Benton can turn his career into something even resembling Heyward’s, the Steelers got a tremendous pick in Round 2 of the 2023 draft.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the rest of the 2023 NFL offseason.