College News & Analysis

Illinois' Devon Witherspoon making his case for top coverage cornerback in college football

Open a new tab in your browser and Google, “Devon Witherspoon hit.” Not many clicks after, you’ll watch a video of one of the hardest and cleanest hits you’ll ever see from a cornerback.

It’s a play from Week 2 of the 2022 college football season when Illinois traveled to Indiana, and also the play where senior cornerback Devon Witherspoon put himself in the national spotlight.

“I had so many notifications after the game,” Witherspoon said with a laugh in an exclusive with PFF. “So many people sent me that video and tagged me in it. It was crazy. It was on ESPN and Sportscenter … that set the tone for the year.”

And it absolutely did. Since then, the 6-foot, 180-pound Witherspoon has been a star. Outside of his tone-setting hit stick, his 91.0 coverage grade on the season is the top grade for cornerbacks in the Big Ten and is the best mark for any cornerback in the FBS. The senior leader for the Illini has allowed just 13 catches for 131 passing yards on 237 coverage snaps.

Stat Value Rank vs. CBs in FBS
Coverage Grade 91.0 1st
Forced Incompletions 13 1st
QB Rating Allowed 31 6th

For as obvious as Witherspoon’s football talent is now, it wasn’t always that way — not even to him.

Witherspoon didn’t even start playing football seriously until his junior year of high school. That means this year is just the sixth year he’s been playing the game at a high level. The reason he picked it up so late: hoop dreams.

“I did play football in little league, but I stopped in high school because I was focusing on basketball,” Witherspoon said. “My dream was to play in the NBA. Favorite player was LeBron James, before him it was Brandon Roy. Freshman year of high school, all I wanted to do was hoop. I wanted to go to college, the NBA, live the hoop dreams.”

But Witherspoon’s mother was always in his ear about football. As a lover of football herself — and a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, with Mike Tomlin being her favorite coach — she finally convinced Devon to just go tryout for football. He did simply to acknowledge his mother’s wishes, not thinking anything would come of it. But after just one year, he already had his first scholarship offer.

He had a good supporting cast around him with a few former SEC coaches as his position coaches in high school who showed him the way and told him what it would take to get to that level. Being behind the eight-ball in the recruiting process was tough, though. Eventually, Witherspoon found himself up at Hutchinson Community College waiting for an important SAT score before making his way to Champaign, Illinois, later that summer. But even after finally getting on the roster for the Fighting Illini, Witherspoon still had to fight his way up the depth chart to make up for lost time.

“We didn’t have a ton of corners [at the time],” Witherspoon said. “I was making my mark on special teams because that was my role. They told me to go make plays on special teams, so I said, ‘OK.” When they saw what I was able to do on special teams, they believed I could go out and play. The standard was high, though. Our coaches told me they had a standard and I had to live up to it.”

Witherspoon’s first real action at cornerback came in Week 6 of 2019 versus Minnesota, where his challengers at wide receiver were the likes of Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson — both of whom are now plying their trade in the NFL. He played only 13 coverage snaps that game, but he also didn’t yield a catch. It was a challenge that he remembers to this day, knowing what it took to go up against future NFL players.

Fast forward to today, and Witherspoon has gone from green and inexperienced to one of Illinois' veterans. His 13 forced incompletions this season are the best in the country. He’s also allowing an opposing quarterback rating of 31.0, which is sixth-lowest in the FBS for cornerbacks who have played at least 150 snaps in coverage.

Stat Value
Coverage Snaps 237
Rec. Allowed 13
Rec. Yards Allowed 131

He’s also become more versatile in his years. Witherspoon is primarily an outside cornerback, having played 1,750 career snaps as a wide corner in his career. But he’ll match up in the slot, as well.

“The biggest difference is the matchups,” Witherspoon said. “There’s more slippery guys, more speed in the slot, so you have to get your hands on guys fast. But as an outside corner, you’re on an island by yourself. I live for that moment. That’s one-on-one; me versus you. That’s the moment everyone lives for. One of my favorite corners growing up was Darrelle Revis — Revis Island. I take pride in stuff like that.”

Just from sitting down to talk with Witherspoon for a short period, you can tell the passion he plays with is genuine. He’s all smiles when he talks about the plays he’s made and is serious and determined when he talks about how much more he wants to grow his game. Whether it’s a big hit in the backfield, a play on the ball or even a good rep that won’t show up in the stat sheet, Witherspoon loves it all.

“I’ve always had that [passion] in me,” Witherspoon said. “This is fun for me. This is what I want to do. All my passion, my energy, my time goes to this. Of course, any little play I get to make, that’s exciting for me.”

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