Wisconsin seeing contributions from true freshmen on defense
Through eight games, Wisconsin's defense boasts upperclassmen leading the way for a unit still ranked in the top 10 in the nation in several major categories. Among them include redshirt seniors Chris Orr and Zack Baun, who have racked up a combined 16.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss this season. Redshirt juniors Isaiahh Loudermilk, Garrett Rand and Eric Burrell have also made significant impacts on the defensive line and safety, respectively.
Despite more experienced Badgers finding time on defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard's unit, three true freshman -- nose tackle Keeanu Benton, inside linebacker Leo Chenal and cornerback Semar Melvin -- have also found reps in their first year with the program.
“I’m sure they feel the same way I feel. It’s a dream come true," Melvin said on Monday. "Coming in, that’s all you really want to do. You just want to play, contribute, give the team your all."
Two of the three did not enroll in the spring semester of 2019. However, that has not stopped Benton from standing out early on in his Wisconsin career. That included recording his first career sack inside Ohio Stadium in the first quarter against the Buckeyes.
During a second down on Ohio State's first drive of the game, some apparent confusion with the Buckeyes led to the Janesville, Wis., native shooting up and finding his way to quarterback Justin Fields. According to Benton, adrenaline was flowing through him and his teammates were pumping him up.
“I wish it was in Camp Randall instead of the Horseshoe to have a more vibrant celebration," Benton said on Monday, "but it was still pretty fun. It was an eye-opener on what I actually want to get, more sacks, and it was just awesome.”
Benton, a former three-star recruit, emerged during fall camp practices open to the media as the No. 2 nose tackle behind sophomore Bryson Williams. He eventually solidified his spot in the two-deep during those sessions and once the official depth chart was released at the beginning of the regular season.
With Williams missing three games due to a left knee injury, Benton stepped up into a starter's role. The NCAA rule states players can play four games and still hold their redshirt for one season. Benton has played in seven of the eight contests, including four starts, entering Wisconsin's November stretch that starts with No. 18 Iowa on Saturday (3 p.m. CT, FOX).
On film, Benton shows an explosiveness and a push. PFF currently grades him as a 67.1 in 111 snaps this season. Along with the one sack, the advanced statistics site also notes six total pressures (one sack, two hits, three hurries).
“All of us are just waiting for our opportunity to play and, obviously, Keeanu’s stepped up into his certain role, and I really think he’s doing a lot of damage," Chenal said. "A lot of the guys are saying, ‘Wow, look at that guy.’ He has a lot of opportunity and potential ahead of him, and he’s already a great player. Just looking at all the potential he has, it’s kind of scary for opponents just having like a monster figure like that out there."
Looking at the "regular" stats sheets, Benton has tallied seven tackles, three for loss. In the months since he first started practicing as a college football player, he credits handling blocks more as part of his growth.
"Like it’s been easier to see the blocks, and then the physicality part, I’ve been getting way more physical with guys," Benton said. "I got stronger. Like I know what blocks I would see by the back, the set in the back, so I’ve been picking up on a lot of clues and having a lot less mental errors.”
CHENAL BOUNCING BACK
Four true freshmen -- Chenal, quarterback Graham Mertz, outside linebacker Spencer Lytle and walk-on wide receiver Cam Phillips -- all took part in spring practices. The Wisconsin Football Coaches Association (WFCA) small school offensive and defensive player of the year in 2018, Chenal flashed during those sessions open to the media and worked as part of the second inside linebacking duo with redshirt junior Mike Maskalunas.
Through fall camp and into the season -- where he is listed on the roster at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds -- he continues to find time on the field when healthy. Like Benton, Chenal now has burned his redshirt after playing in five games. He missed the win against Northwestern with what UW officially designated as a head injury, then returned a week later for the non-conference finale against Kent State. He did not play the following two games thereafter against Michigan State and Illinois due to what Wisconsin noted in its status reports as a head injury.
Two Saturdays ago, however, Chenal returned to playing inside the Horseshoe. Though PFF reported Chenal playing just one snap against Ohio State, the Grantsburg (WI) product noted he was “like a hungry dog” waiting on the sidelines for position coach Bob Bostad to put him back on the field. Now he's "just excited as ever" as he looks ahead to Iowa.
"Coming back from something that’s holding you back like a concussion, it’s not the funnest thing just to sit and watch your brothers, so it just adds to the fire," Chenal said. "I just don’t want to take anything for granted. They call themselves physical, and we stand as physical so I’m just really excited to prove that we’re the physical ones."
Through a handful of contests, he has recorded 13 tackles, one sack and a fumble recovery. He believes his progression from the South Florida game to this week has been, as he coined it, "small steps." While still committing mistakes at times, he credits Bostad in helping him point out those errors. He also looks to build up confidence during each game he plays.
"Every time I get on the field, I just feel more confident," Chenal said. "We go through our routine every week and like what we need to do, but when it comes to games when you’re out there for the first time, it’s like you kind of freeze up. That’s how I was my first game, but I definitely feel it. Like I feel more confident, like ‘OK here’s an indicator and what I need to do in these certain plays.'”
Benton loves when Chenal plays, even noting his fellow 2019 signee growls when out on the field.
“Oh he screams," Benton said. "Like if he does something good, he screams and he just looks like a monster out there.”
According to Chenal, he admitted, "it's just my thing." He pointed to advice from his mother, who told him when he is "out on the field, you want to be someone else."
"You don't want to be the same laid back, polite person you want to be," Chenal said. "I try to turn myself into like an animal, do whatever I can to get everyone around me hyped, and it gets me excited, too."
From Leonhard's perspective as a coach, he is excited seeing how Benton and Chenal have progressed and how they have handled it. However, the third-year defensive coordinator also called out the constant talks and making sure these freshmen are still able to continue to push both mentally and physically through the grind of 12 regular season games.
“It’s the most football they’ve played, most of these guys, getting into a college season as a freshman, they’re still playing," Leonhard said on Tuesday. "The guys they’re talking to back home are done or they’re getting to the end of the playoffs and stuff like that. So you just mentally and physically got to push them to continue to go and make sure that you’re not putting too much on them but putting them in positions to have success.”
MELVIN FINDS TIME IN THE HORSESHOE
While the depth at nose tackle and inside linebacker have allowed Benton and Chenal to push through for playing time, Wisconsin's cornerback spots hold a near three-deep of game-ready Badgers.
That has not stopped Melvin from finding time on the field in two games, most notably against Ohio State. PFF reported Melvin received 12 snaps in the game with a grade of 63.1 -- fifth best on the team -- and the true freshman recalled playing in the third and fourth quarters.
“It was crazy," Melvin said. "When I first stepped out I was like, ‘Man, it was like a dream come true playing college football,’ especially playing against Ohio State. That’s the team I watched. Growing up, it was the team that I watched over all the years of my football [career]. It was just crazy stepping on the field especially in the close game, stepping on, contributing. It was amazing. I felt great.”
Along with his reps against Ohio State, Melvin also saw time in his home state during Wisconsin's 49-0 win at South Florida on Aug. 30 in the season opener.
A former four-star recruit by Rivals.com, Melvin has seen a change from high school to college in his patience and how he thinks. Once he started taking the coaching points from the staff, and as he described, "putting it all together," he believed he was going to see some playing time.
Benton feels that once Melvin receives more snaps, he will become more comfortable. Though the latter feels like he's performed "pretty well," he acknowledged the room for improvement and has described himself as a sponge in his first year.
“I take every type of information. I take constructive criticism. I take everything in and I use it and I turn it into motivation and passion," Melvin said. "I just put it all out on the field so that way I play with all the passion in my heart and I give everything, every snap."
According to Melvin, the plan is to play in just four contests. A day later, Leonhard described the thought process behind a situation like his young cornerback's.
"Yeah, I think at this point you know you still have two [games Melvin can play]," Leonhard said. "You want to be smart. You want to give guys opportunities, not just a snap here, snap there. You don’t want to waste opportunities for him. He just continues to improve. He does what we ask him to do technically. He’s competitive so we felt comfortable with those matchups. As good as their receivers are, we liked him on the field against Ohio State.
"It’s a constant evaluation. You know you don’t want to get to a position where you have to waste a redshirt but you want to keep him ready and motivated to continue to work and get better so you can reward him if you get the opportunity.”