Defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk didn’t hesitate to call the nose tackle the anchor of the University of Wisconsin football team’s 3-4 defense.
But the No. 13 Badgers (2-0) will be without one of their top anchors in sophomore Bryson Williams when they play No. 11 Michigan Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. Williams missed UW’s previous game, a 61-0 win over Central Michigan, due to a left leg injury and the same injury will keep him out against the Wolverines (2-0).
In Williams’ place will be true freshman Keeanu Benton, a former Janesville Craig athlete who will make his second start for the Badgers. Williams had 12 tackles as a true freshman in earning a starting role last season, and he recorded a tackle in UW’s season-opening win over South Florida.
But the negativity of having a regular contributor injured has been tempered somewhat by the emergence of Benton in the role. The 6-foot-4, 315-pounder has flashed speed and power in the middle of the Badgers defense, which has yet to yield a point in two games.
UW veterans like Loudermilk, a junior, notice when a young player like Benton stands out.
“Coming in, Keeanu was raw. He still is kind of raw. But he’s a big body, he’s fast, he’s strong, but what we’ve seen from him so far in camp and in the first two games, he’s definitely a playmaker,” Loudermilk said Monday.
“Going on this year, he’s only going to get better and better. He’s made strides from camp to now, he’s been working and coach has really been getting on him to keep working because he sees the potential. Keeanu will be a big-time player.”
Benton’s job in defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s scheme is to occupy offensive linemen’s blocks as long as possible and allow linebackers to fill gaps against the run.
How well he can do that job will get its best test of the season so far against Michigan, whose line and running game are far superior to those of South Florida and Central Michigan, two pass-heavy offenses. The Wolverines are trying to become a better passing team but still rely on the ground game to churn out first downs.
Benton has three total tackles and two tackles for loss thus far, showing his ability to shed blocks and find the ball.
Benton has shown junior linebacker Chris Orr that he’s capable of being a disruptor in the middle.
“He’s big. Big,” Orr said with emphasis. “When I first saw him, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, put him right there in the middle in front of all of us. Let him eat up them blocks.’ But I think what I’m most impressed about is that he doesn’t just stay on blocks. When he gets double-teamed, he’ll eat the double then split it and go make a play.”
Orr said that when he saw Benton splitting double teams against UW’s line in practice and during a scrimmage, he was confident he’d be a contributor early in his career.
“I’ve been impressed,” Orr said. “He’s got a high ceiling, a real high ceiling.”
UW coach Paul Chryst knew from a talent perspective that Benton would be able to add depth to the Badgers defensive line this season, but said he wasn’t sure quite when that would happen.
“I’ve been impressed with the way that he’s kind of handled everything and continued to grow," Chryst said. “As we all know, there’s a ton of learning still ahead of him, but I like his approach. Obviously the experiences that he’s been getting are extremely valuable.”
Bruss questionable; Moorman, Beach ready
Sophomore right tackle Logan Bruss was listed as questionable on the preliminary injury report after missing the Central Michigan game with a left leg injury.
Fifth-year senior David Moorman started in place of Bruss and split the role with sophomore Tyler Beach. Moorman’s versatility along the line and as a tight end has been crucial for the Badgers, whose tight end group is down three players — Zander Neuville (retired), Gabe Lloyd (out for season, right leg injury), and Luke Benzschawel (right leg injury).
Chryst said Moorman and Beach have shown the ability to adapt to different roles.
“They’ve done a lot of different things, so I think that helps whenever you have to shuffle,” he said. “When you get put in game situations, you want to see if it’s the same person, and I think they were. They didn’t morph into someone different. The moments didn’t get big on them.”