By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Football Writer/Analyst
December 17, 2022
(Cover photo courtesy Illinois Athletics)
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The All-American career of Illinois defensive back Devon Witherspoon has ended.
Witherspoon announced on social media on Saturday morning that he’ll be declaring for the 2023 NFL Draft and will not play in the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 2 against Mississippi State.
Witherspoon, who is a projected first or second round draft pick, had 41 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss, three interceptions and 14 passes broken up this season. Witherspoon accepted an invitation to participate in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., after having a 2022 season that included him being one of three finalists for the Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back.
Witherspoon was one of two Illinois players to announce their withdrawal from the bowl game as safety Sydney Brown announced his decision to enter the 2023 NFL Draft.
Witherspoon became the first defensive back in Illinois history to earn Consensus All-American status and the first Illini player to earn such an honor in 11 years.
“I think something clicked for him in the spring,” Illinois head coach Bret Bielema said Saturday in a media conference at State Farm Center. “I could really see him turning into something special and just different. It’s because of his football intelligence, his awareness, his toughness and his ability to read and react.”
Witherspoon will be honored at Illinois with a plaque in Grange Grove, a banner in the Great West Hall of Memorial Stadium, and his jersey hung in the Smith Center staircase.
“I still haven’t soaked all of that in yet,” Witherspoon said Saturday. “To have a chance to be remembered here forever at this place is something that holds that much more weight to me.”
Witherspoon's long list of accolades includes being named the Big Ten's Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year, one of three finalists for the Paycom Jim Thorpe Award, and All-Big Ten first team, solidifying himself as one of the top cornerbacks in the nation and one of the best in Illinois history.
“It’s been a wonderful experience here at Illinois, especially under Coach Bielema where they’ve let be who I am and develop on and off the field,” Witherspoon said. “I want to thank Coach Walters too because as a defense, we just all believed in him and rallied around what he wanted us to do.”
He led in the nation in reception percentage against (33.8) and forced incompletions (16), according to Pro Football Focus. Witherspoon, a native of Pensacola, Fla., was sixth in the nation in passes defended (17) and allowed fewer than 35 receiving yards in 11 of 12 games this season, based on PFF data..
Witherspoon led Illinois' defense to one of the top in the nation in 2022. The Illini ranked in the top 10 in the nation in 17 major defensive categories, including leading the nation in interceptions, passing efficiency defense, fewest touchdowns allowed, and fewest yards per pass attempt. Illinois finished the regular season second in the nation in scoring defense and third in total defense.
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