‘It’s just a wonderful feeling’: Projected 1st-round draft pick Devon Witherspoon’s journey from zero stars ends as a superstar

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Sydney Laput

Defensive back Devon Witherspoon and the rest of the team after “Hail to the Orange” following a game against Iowa on Oct. 8. The Illini reflect on Witherspoon’s journey from underdog to his entrance in the NFL draft.

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

Junior cornerback Devon Witherspoon declared for the NFL draft last week, officially ending his Illinois football career and beginning his first steps toward playing professional football. While Illini fans have grown used to seeing Witherspoon locking down opponents and his fiery personality all over the field, the NFL was not always within reach for the Florida native. 

Witherspoon did not begin playing football until his junior year of high school, when he quickly realized the talent that he possessed. In two short years at Pine Forest, he became one of the best defenders in Pensacola, Fla., and earned the Pensacola News Journal Male Athlete of the Year in 2018. 

Even still, Witherspoon failed to gain attention outside his hometown and was given 0 stars from every top recruiting website. He began to pick up offers from schools in the South East, but no Power 5 offers — until Illinois took a chance late in the summer of 2019. Coming off of a disappointing 4-8 season, the Illini were very willing to take a chance on an underrated 0-star recruit and get him onto the field. 

When he got to campus, he knew he was meant to be among the best.

“I always wanted to play Power-5 football, and it was a great opportunity that the Lord has blessed me with to play at Illinois. I had to take my shot,” Witherspoon said.

Current head coach Bret Bielema has profited off of Witherspoon’s greatness more than the coach that recruited him. Despite former head coach Lovie Smith’s underwhelming tenure as head coach, he was still impressed with his signing.

“As a young player when you come in … You have to make first impressions,” Smith said. “He showed up.”

Witherspoon made his chances count as his coach wished, making arguably the play of the season for the Illini. The corner chased down Wisconsin’s Kendrick Pryor, who seemed destined for a touchdown, tackling the receiver at the three-yard line. The score would have put the Badgers up 27-13 late, but the tackle led to a field goal, and the Badgers failed to score again. The Illini drilled a field goal as time expired a couple of drives later, making the tackle and winning 24-23. Witherspoon has been a fan favorite ever since. 

Witherspoon solidified himself as a top starter on the team the following year, starting all seven games that he was healthy for, and making great strides along the way. Then came Bret Bielema, bringing defensive coordinator Ryan Walters and defensive backs coach Aaron Henry to Champaign. Under a better coaching staff, Witherspoon started ten more games and earned an All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2021.

The team and culture changed with the coaching additions, and Witherspoon was at the center of it all. The defense far outperformed the offense in 2021, leading the Illini to multiple ranked wins and their best record in years. 

After seeing what he was capable of, the coaching staff prepared for a breakout year in 2022. Last offseason, according to Bielema, was when Witherspoon switched to another gear.

“Something clicked in the Spring. Something happened within him that kind of took his play to a different level.”

The junior leaped up more than one level, as his improvement was noticeable from the get-go. The very first play on defense in Week One ended with Witherspoon reading a screen and blowing up the play with a big hit. The play went viral, getting early recognition for a player who would have his name known by the entire country at the season’s end. Witherspoon had a dominant season where he earned First Team All-Big Ten and First Team All-America honors from several sources, including FWAA, PFF, AFCA, Walter Camp and more. 

While Witherspoon’s play improved significantly, so did his competitive fire. There was never a good defensive play for the Illini where Witherspoon wasn’t jawing at the opposing team, letting them know what he had done.

“He won’t run away from nothing, dude. He’s already as competitive as they come,” then-cornerbacks coach and current defensive coordinator Aaron Henry said.

This inspiring attitude makes him all the more attractive to NFL teams and harder to replace on the Illini roster. His time in Champaign showed the improvement of the program, and his journey to the NFL will show other underrated and 0-star recruits that they can follow the same path as they look up to him.

“It’s just a wonderful feeling to know that I will be remembered forever in this place,” Witherspoon said.

 

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@benfader7