Melbourne’s Ben Key is on the precipice of the top tier of college football. With the SEC calling his name, the defensive lineman has revealed he is committing to Mississippi State, and he knows a feverish stage is waiting.
“That’s big dog football,” he tells ESPN from Los Angeles.
Just days after the 2019 NFL Draft saw compatriot Mitch Wishnowsky picked by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round, Australia has its next bright star bursting onto the football horizon, and the 6’4″ 285-pound 19-year-old DT says he can’t wait to step into SEC country.
“I feel like it’s more aggressive, it’s a different build and I want to be a part of that,” he says. “A lot of people doubted me coming here, they didn’t think I’d come this far … So my goal is to dominate, I’m trying to be the number one defensive lineman in the nation. That’s what I want to prove in the SEC.”
At 17, Key picked up his life in Melbourne where he trained at Conquest Athletic Performance, moving across the Pacific Ocean to complete school at Cathedral High in Los Angeles. Following one season under the bright Friday night lights, the humble graduate took the junior college (JUCO) route enrolling at East Los Angeles College, where he’s thrived on the defensive line.
Despite appearing in only six games for the Huskies in his freshman season, big schools came knocking.
“Oregon, UCLA, USC, Auburn, Utah, there were more,” he says. “But the Mississippi State coaches’ recruiting was different. They really treated me like family to be honest, and they kept it one-hundred with me. I want to be coached like that, I’m about loyalty, and that was the only college program where the head coach was contacting me. Plus it’s the SEC, and I’m realising how big that is. I knew they wanted me badly and I wanted to play SEC football so it was mutual.”
The most heralded division in NCAA football was one factor. Another was the Bulldogs’ reputation for putting big-time defensive lineman into the NFL. With Montez Sweat and Jeffrey Simmons going in the first round of the Draft last week, and reigning All-Pro defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Chris Jones among Mississippi State alumni, Key knows he’s going to the school for him.
“Honestly, that was one of the big reasons that I committed there early. I’ve researched past D-lineman in the program, and they’re known for getting them to the NFL,” he says. “The position coach there now coached Jadeveon Clowney (at South Carolina), and when he told me that I was like, ‘woah that’s crazy’. To be able to be coached by someone who coached a top calibre player like Clowney.”
Despite having played football in the US for just two years since “starting from scratch” with Conquest Head of Performance Dave Tuinauvai in Melbourne, Key has relished the rapid journey and the difference to rugby league, the sport he grew up with at home.
“Having responsibilities and assignments, you can’t be doing your own thing you’ve got to stick to those. It’s kind of like chess, and I like the fact they watch film and break everything down. I feel like I learn better like that. I love watching film, I watch as much as I can.”
As for what coaches from Mississippi State, East Los Angeles and beyond have seen in his film, a trait shared by other Australian converts gets mentioned outside of his obvious size, power and quickness.
“They say I have a motor, that I play non-stop,” he says. “I just play until I hear the whistle, sometimes a little extra. I try to run full speed everywhere, wherever I can make a play I’ll try to make a play. This year I’ve got a lot more to prove, I can’t wait.”
The Bulldogs have him slotted in as a 3-technique defensive tackle, and Key says they don’t plan on redshirting him before unleashing his raw talent on SEC backfields. As he continues to learn the game and develop, there are a couple of grand names he’s looking to model himself off.
“I always try to play like Aaron Donald — he’s an animal, and with aggression like Ndamukong Suh.”
Before he sniffs that type of production, or even an SEC training ground, the Melburnian has locked in on a few specific areas he needs to sharpen going into his sophomore year.
“I want to keep improving my play recognition, and the coaches say that will keep coming with experience and playing the game. I’ve been working on my hands and movement this offseason as well, so I’ve really picked that up a lot.”
We paused for a moment, as a major college program number comes up on Key’s phone, emblematic of just how intense and swift this process has been for someone so new to the game. Coming so far in such a short amount of time comes with hurdles, one of them whether he ever gets home sick.
“Hell yeah. I’m very family-oriented, I especially miss my mum,” he says. “Coming here it was especially tough on her, but my little nephew has kept her busy which has made it easier. But they’re the main reason I’m doing this, for sure, 100 percent.”
It’s not the first time family comes up from the Mississippi State recruit, taking time to note the humility and teamwork fostered at Conquest, who’ve already sent multiple Australians into college football, the most recent being offensive lineman Luke Felix-Fualalo to the Utah Utes.
With his college home decided, the trail-blazing teenager says he’s able to focus on his team and winning a JUCO championship together this season. Beyond that is a desire to inspire other young Australians to take the chance he did “with both hands”, get an education and give themselves hope of so much more.
“I want to be talked about as a first round pick in the NFL Draft. That’s my goal, to make history in the NFL, make some noise up there and look after my family, for all the days they looked after me,” he says. “I’m just going to take it step by step for now, it’s been a hell of a ride already but after everything I’ve been through to get here, now it’s going to be fun.”
With that idea close to his heart, Key is planning on bringing a strong look to Starkville, rocking a tidy shaved head at the front with a long-flowing party of curls at the back. Given Troy Polamalu was the first player he ever watched, that’s little surprise.
“This is a unique haircut, I’m going to rock this ’til I get to the Draft, for sure. I’m going to represent Australia and Samoa when I do it.”