The nerves were flowing through Keeanu Benton as he prepared for what amounted to a week-long, hands-on job interview.
The former University of Wisconsin nose tackle knew he needed to put up a strong performance at the Reese’s Senior Bowl to impress scouts unsure about his NFL prospects despite a solid career for the Badgers.
“You have a little bit of self-doubt not knowing how well the process is treating you until you kind of get there,” Benton said Thursday at the Badgers’ pro day. “I think I did everything I could to do my best and keep moving up the draft stock.”
Benton was one of the standout players of the Senior Bowl and a solid showing at the NFL Scouting Combine reinforced his rise up teams’ draft boards. He’s ranked the No. 6 interior defensive lineman in the class by PFF’s NFL Draft Guide, and is projected to go as high as the middle of the second round.
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He participated in on-field drills, but didn’t do testing Thursday at the McClain Center, allowing his combine results to stand on their own. Benton completed 25 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, which was fifth among defensive tackles at the combine. He ran a 5.08-second 40-yard dash (eighth), jumped 29½ inches in the vertical (sixth) and 9 feet, 3 inches in the broad jump (fifth). Benton also ran the three-cone drill in 7.34 seconds (second) and the 20-yard shuttle in 4.65 seconds (fourth).
Benton tallied 80 tackles in 45 career games, adding nine sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He was at his best his senior year, notching career-bests with 35 tackles, 10 TFLs and 4½ sacks. His ability to play across the interior of the line, from 0-technique to 4-technique, is intriguing to NFL evaluators.
“Just demonstrating my versatility throughout the combine and throughout the Senior Bowl kind of helped them get more comfortable with me playing all those positions,” Benton said.
Playing in the NFL seemed real to Benton even as he struggled his freshman season when he thrust into the lineup due to an injury. Now, the nerves he’s felt during the draft process can wait until late April when he learns where his NFL career will begin.
“When the draft comes,” Benton said, “God takes over at that point.”