Badgers: NT Keeanu Benton likely returning to UW in 2022, LB Leo Chenal and CB Faion Hicks undecided
MADISON — Keeanu Benton is most likely coming back for his senior year, while Leo Chenal and Faion Hicks have not made a decision on their futures.
That was what we learned when Wisconsin made defensive players available to the media on Tuesday for the first time since the Badgers suffered an ugly 23-13 loss at Minnesota late last month.
Benton, a second-team All-Big Ten pick along the defensive line, told reporters he is thinking about returning for his final year but talked like a guy that has already decided. He spent the last week speaking with his family, along with the coaching staff. The Janesville native feels like he has room to improve mentally and physically, especially when it comes to his strength in the weight room. Benton also noted the larger number of players available for the draft after many took advantage of the extra year of eligibility this past season due to the pandemic.
“(The coaches) felt like I would have been ready but this isn’t the year to leave early because of the COVID guys that stayed back,” Benton said. “It’s a big class, so it (reduces) my chances of getting drafted. It can’t hurt staying another year.”
Benton admitted that early in his career he thought he would be three years and gone, especially when he ended up starting as a true freshman in 2019.
“That was just my young mind talking,” Benton said. “But when the time comes, you’ve got to actually sit down and think (whether) you have everything that it takes to go make that next step, because once you make it, you can’t come back.”
The 6-foot-4, 317-pound Benton is still waiting on his evaluation from the College Advisory Committee. That group will give prospects a first-round grade, a second-round grade, or a go-back-to-school grade. Asked what, if anything, the committee could tell him that would change his mind on returning or not, Benton was clear.
“First round,” he said with a smile. “That’s about it.”
Chenal came to Wisconsin in the same 2019 class as Benton and joined him in the starting lineup last season. But it was this fall that he really took off, becoming the first UW inside linebacker to earn All-American honors since TJ Edwards in 2017 and being just the third player in school history to be named Big Ten Linebacker of the Year.
Chenal was peppered with questions about his decision to stay or go but largely shrugged them off, determined to keep his attention on Wisconsin’s Las Vegas Bowl matchup with Arizona State.
“I haven’t decided. It’s definitely a really big decision,” Chenal said. “But again, all I care about right now is we need to end on a high note because I love this program, I love our seniors, I love this team and that’s all I want right now.”
That does not mean he is not thinking about that decision, though. He, like Benton, has submitted his name to the College Advisory Committee and is awaiting his grade, while also collecting as much information as possible from those around him. But he said that grade will not be the deciding factor for him.
“I’m not going to really put a number on it or anything like that. It is more than just a number,” Chenal said. “It’s weighing a lot of factors. There’s a lot of special stuff going on here and a lot of things we could do next year. It’s more than just potential this or potential that. A lot of it is things you want to accomplish, too.”
Hicks, meanwhile, has a chance to return for a sixth season thanks to the NCAA giving every student athlete impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic an extra year of competition. He spoke a few weeks ago and said it is something he is open to.
“No, I haven’t made a decision yet,” Hicks said. “Like I said, once the last game comes, I’ll sit down with my family and just kind of talk to him about it. I will just weigh the benefits, the pros and cons about it, and if it benefits me coming back. No decision yet.”
The Florida product has started much of the last three years at cornerback for Wisconsin and was an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick this year. He has some guys to lean on to make the decision, specifically senior Caesar Williams. He was one of several players to take advantage of the extra year and his sixth season was the best during his time in Madison.
“Definitely had conversations with (Williams) all the time,” Hicks said. “How did it benefit him? What was his thoughts on it? What played into him coming back? So definitely lean on him a lot on that decision, asking him if it benefited him. And I feel like a did. Caesar had one of his best years coming back. It definitely helped him out a lot.”
Several other seniors have already made their choices, including kicker Collin Larsh, who announced he would be coming back for a sixth season. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel also reported that punter Andy Vujnovich would as well, while safety Scott Nelson would not.