April 27, 2023
By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Football Writer/Analyst
Cover Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Devon Witherspoon is the newest member of the Seattle Seahawks franchise.
Witherspoon didn’t have to wait very long on Thursday night in downtown Kansas City to hear his name called, hug Roger Goddell and The 5-foot-11 cornerback, who was a consensus All-American and a Jim Thorpe Award finalist last season with the Illini, was selected with the fifth overall selection of the 2023 National Football League draft.
Witherspoon was in attendance at the draft in Kansas City’s downtown ‘Crown Center’ along with his mother, Rhasheda Bickley along with Illinois head coach Bret Bielema and Illinois defensive coordinator Aaron Henry. Henry was Witherspoon’s position coach at Illinois the last two seasons under the play-calling responsibilities of then-coordinator Ryan Walters before he accepted the head coaching position at Purdue.
“First and foremost, I tell (NFL personnel) to believe in what they’re seeing,” Henry said on Witherspoon’s private pro workout on April 5. “Most teams that are calling are enamored that Illinois has the kind of talent in our secondary. In talking about Devon, the first thing I start off with is he’s an absolute dog. Before the snap, after the snap, he’s a competitor and that’s just the way he’s wired.”
Witherspoon becomes the first player on Bielema’s college roster to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft since Arkansas center Frank Ragnow went to Detroit with the 20th overall selection of the 2018 NFL Draft.
“It’s a fulfilling moment,” Bielema said. “My wife warned me that I can be a bit of an emotional person. I know it means to Devon and his family but for me to get to know these young men and get a chance to be around them over the last two years has been very fulfilling.”
Witherspoon becomes the highest drafted Illini player who the Raiders have drafted. Before Thursday night, linebacker Jack Squirek (drafted in the second round, No. 35 overall) held that title.
Other notable first round picks from a Bielema college roster have included center Travis Frederick (No. 31, 2013), guard Kevin Zeitler (No. 27, 2012), defensive end J.J. Watt (No. 11, 2011), offensive tackle Gabe Carimi (No. 29, 2011) and Joe Thomas (No. 3, 2007).
The Detroit Lions, at No. 6, were always a popular landing spot in many mock drafts throughout the pre-draft process especially after Detroit announced a trade on April 11 that included sending cornerback and former first round Jeff Okudah to the Atlanta Falcons for a fifth-round pick in this 2023 draft, No. 159 overall, after Okudah played in just 10 games his first two seasons combined with the Lions due to core muscle and Achilles Tendon injuries. However, Witherspoon was taken before Detroit was able to make a selection on Thursday.
Witherspoon’s representation, led by ICM Stellar Sports’ football director Reggie Johnson, delayed his pro day workout nearly a month due to a severe hamstring injury suffered before the NFL Scouting Combine. Witherspoon conducted a private workout for NFL personnel inside the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility in Champaign on April 5 and the Lions positional coaches (defensive backs coach Brian Duker and Lions cornerbacks coach Dre Bly) along with New York Giants defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson and Baltimore Ravens defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson led the positional drills that Witherspoon went through at the end of the workout.
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