Early in the season, it was fair to compare the 2023 NFL Draft cornerback class with its 2022 counterpart and feel underwhelmed. However, several CBs have since cemented themselves as early-round prospects. And once you delve into Illinois CB Devon Witherspoon’s scouting report, it’s clear he’s near the top.
Devon Witherspoon NFL Draft Profile
- Position: CB
- School: Illinois
- Current Year: Senior
- Height/Weight: 5’11 1/2″, 181 pounds
- Arm Length: 31 1/4″
- Hand Size: 8 7/8″
Sometimes when watching early-round prospects, you wonder how they ended up at their current school. And while Illinois is a Big Ten program with plenty of talent, especially on defense, they aren’t exactly an NFL pipeline (10 players drafted since 2015).
Yet, you have to credit the Fighting Illini for finding a diamond in the rough. Witherspoon wasn’t your typical five-star prospect. In fact, he had zero stars coming out of Pine Forest High School in Pensacola, Florida.
His recruiting trail was so dry that he originally committed to Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. But it wasn’t because he didn’t have talent — he simply didn’t have the tape. Witherspoon didn’t begin playing football until his junior year!
In his two years of high school ball, Witherspoon generated 11 interceptions, 18 PBUs, and 139 tackles. He even starred for Pine Forest’s basketball and track teams. So yeah, Witherspoon’s always had the God-given tools to be an elite athlete.
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Now, when I said his recruiting trail was dry because of a lack of tape, I omitted one crucial fact: He was on the verge of being academically ineligible. With only two years of film, albeit scholarship-worthy, and issues in the classroom, it’s clear why most programs kept their distance.
But Witherspoon didn’t let this deter him from his dream. Instead, he put his head down and raised his grades. Once he did, the D1 offers rolled in. And four days before training camp began in July, Witherspoon verbally committed to Illinois.
That year, he became the only member of the Fighting Illini’s 2019 recruiting class to start a game and led the team in special-teams tackles. Fast forward to 2022, and Witherspoon is a three-year starter coming off his best season yet, racking up three INTs and 14 PBUs (tied for eighth most).
To keep the success train rolling, Witherspoon accepted his invite to the Reese’s Senior Bowl (although he later opted out), received the Big Ten’s DB of the Year award, earned consensus All-American status, and was one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award (the first in Illinois history), given to the nation’s top defensive back.
Devon Witherspoon Scouting Report
Like yours truly, Illinois DBs coach Aaron Henry is a big fan of Witherspoon’s game:
“He understands what route combinations are occurring. He understands wide receiver splits. The young man is brilliantly intelligent. He’s very, very, very smart. He can tell you what formations, what routes they like, and when they like to run them. He’s that intelligent.”
That’s high praise from a coach who’s been with Witherspoon for the better part of his career, and yet it only scratches the surface of what makes Witherspoon one of the top cornerbacks in the 2023 NFL Draft class.
Where Witherspoon Wins
Aggressive. Physical. Confident. If you watch Witherspoon play, and those aren’t the first words that come to mind, we’re watching different players. Like Sauce Gardner from the 2022 class, Witherspoon has the utmost belief in his ability to shut down the man across from him.
What he lacks in size, he doubles with sheer effort and will. He sets the tone in the secondary with energetic and violent plays, both with the ball in the air and on the ground.
Seriously, you won’t see any other corner lay the wood with as much vigor and furiosity as Witherspoon. But he isn’t just throwing his body into hits aimlessly — he understands leverage and angles, using the proper path and technique into every attempt.
Against the run, Witherspoon disengages quickly from outside blockers and crashes down to support the front seven. Many times, the Illinois CB made the solo stop, even behind the line of scrimmage on runs toward the edge.
Now that we got Witherspoon’s elite run defense out of the way, let’s dive into what makes him my CB1. Yes, that’s right. I’d take Witherspoon over the likes of Deonte Banks, Joey Porter Jr., Christian Gonzalez, and any other corner you prefer.
The Illinois CB’s coverage ability simply supersedes that of his peers. The Fighting Illini ran man coverage on roughly 75% of their snaps — by far the highest rate in the nation. The result? 12.3 points (first) and 263.8 yards (second) allowed per game — top-two marks across all 131 FBS programs.
But that’s the overall defense; how about the coverage unit? Eight touchdowns allowed (tied fewest), 22 interceptions (most), 49.5% completion rate (first), and 5.4 yards per pass attempt (fewest).
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Much of that success can be attributed to Witherspoon, whose ability to shut down one side of the field freed up the rest of the defense. At the line, Witherspoon possesses calculated patience, smooth feet, and controlled one- or two-hand strikes in press.
Witherspoon keeps squared shoulders until he feels the WR pushing vertically, to which point he can quickly flip his hips and carry them upfield. While not the fastest corner, which we will get into later, Witherspoon has enough juice to stay in phase on deep routes.
But mid-route is where the Illinois CB truly shines. He remains low and patient in his backpedal, not declaring his hips too swiftly. When paired with his rapid feet, fluid hips, and overall short-area suddenness, Witherspoon has no issue staying in his opponent’s pocket or breaking on the ball.
It’s clear he studies tape, too, as there are many reps where Witherspoon sees the route/play design before it nears completion. He pairs his film-based knowledge with exceptional reactive athleticism, where his body is able to respond to what his eyes see at a moment’s notice.
Witherspoon analyzes the receiver’s movements, watching for any change in tempo, pad level, or hip angle, all of which are indicators for route breaks. So Witherspoon is stellar at the line and mid-route, but what about the catch point? Glad you asked.
The Illinois CB owns tremendous ball skills, often out-physicaling his opponent with the ball in the air. He sets himself up with quality hand combat before getting his head around to make a play on the ball. Fighting through hands is natural for Witherspoon, as evidenced by his 14 PBUs and three INTs this season.
Witherspoon is clearly the top man-coverage corner in the class. His instincts and tape study are unparalleled, significantly boosting his average to above-average physical traits. Oh, and he has over 300 special-teams snaps on his résumé (kick coverage, punt return, punt coverage, and field-goal block).
Witherspoon’s Areas for Improvement
As much as I love Witherspoon’s game, there are always areas for improvement. Chief of which for the Illinois CB is containing his aggressiveness. Across the last two seasons, Witherspoon’s been penalized 11 times, mostly from defensive pass interferences.
He’s developed every year since entering college, working on getting his head around before the ball entered the vicinity. However, Witherspoon can still be too physical, over-eager, and “handsy,” which he may struggle with during his first few years in the NFL against superior athletes.
In coverage, Witherspoon can be overconfident in his play recognition and physical abilities, falling for the occasional jab-step at the line and double or even triple move downfield. And as a tackler, there were times when he overpursued angles, leading to whiffs and broken attempts.
Now, there are some aspects of Witherspoon’s scouting report that he can’t truly improve on. Although he does an excellent job staying on top of routes and not letting himself get stacked, his long speed can be questionable vs. speedy WRs. And, for better or worse, a hamstring injury held him out of the NFL Combine, meaning he didn’t get to quantify his speed with the 40-yard dash.
Additionally, the Illinois CB’s arm length is average at best. It hasn’t proven to be much of an issue in college, but it could rear its head against bigger and stronger NFL wideouts.
Speaking of, Witherspoon owns a relatively light frame, which could cause problems in press coverage and at route breaks vs. larger pass catchers. Lastly, will teams box him into the “slot only” category? I believe Witherspoon can shine on the outside, but I’m also not an NFL decision-maker.
Current Draft Projection for Illinois CB Devon Witherspoon
As mentioned, Witherspoon is clearly one of “my guys” this season. But when putting my biases aside, he still checks in as the CB1 in the 2023 NFL Draft. Nevertheless, I’m not blind to the fact NFL franchises seek size/speed athletes, and Witherspoon doesn’t fall into that bucket.
Due to his lack of top-end speed and frame, Witherspoon is best suited for off-coverage. There, his instincts and film study shine, allowing his play recognition and reactiveness to take center stage.
In fact, Witherspoon may very well be an All-Pro level safety prospect. While outside CB is the more valuable position and should be where he’s selected, I wouldn’t fault a coordinator that wants to utilize his coverage ability and downhill/run support mentality on the back end.
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Witherspoon is a Round 1 talent with the versatility to play inside or outside. Even if teams sneer at his physical ceiling and view him as a slot-only option, Witherspoon’s production and film will ensure he hears his name called early.
Start him on the outside, and if he struggles, you still have an elite prospect in the slot — a position that’s value has grown exponentially in recent years — or at safety. Witherspoon’s run defense, hard-hitting/confident playstyle, and special-teams experience only increase his odds of receiving significant playing time early on.
Don’t take my word for it; turn on the tape, and you’ll see the top cover corner in the class. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah is of the same mind, ranking Witherspoon as the No. 1 corner and fifth overall prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft:
“Sometimes you can see guys that have the athletic ability, and sometimes you see guys that really have studied film, and they know how to play, and it’s not common when you see guys that have all that wrapped up together. He does. He is a complete package that way.”