Devon Witherspoon, a projected top-10 pick, is 1 of 3 Illinois defensive backs drawing NFL draft attention – The Mercury News

Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon stood on a sideline Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis doing an interview with NFL Network’s Stacey Dales while the top defensive back prospects worked out.

Witherspoon, one of the highest-rated cornerbacks in this year’s draft, was supposed to be working out with them, but a hamstring issue prevented him from doing on-field testing. He told Dales the injury was “nothing serious” and he expected to work out for teams either at Illinois’ pro day on March 10 or during private workouts.

But he clearly was disappointed.

“It messes with me,” he said. “I want to be out there with the guys, the top prospects around the world. But I’ve still got to cheer my guys on, make sure they’re doing good in the drills.”

Witherspoon was one of three Illinois defensive backs at the combine last week along with safeties Sydney Brown and Jartavius “Quan” Martin.

After an All-America season in 2022 in which he had three interceptions, 17 passes defended, 41 tackles and 2½ tackles for a loss, Witherspoon entered the week in the top 10 of mock drafts by NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah and ESPN’s Mel Kiper. The last Illini players drafted in the first round were defensive end Whitney Mercilus and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins in 2012.

In a conference call before the combine, Jeremiah said he’s “a big fan of the guys they’ve got in the secondary there at Illinois” and devoted a lot of time to his appreciation for Witherspoon, who is 5-foot-11 and 181 pounds. That started with Witherspoon’s instincts, natural feel, awareness and route recognition.

“He sees things before they develop,” Jeremiah said. “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.

“I mean, I wish he was 200 pounds. He is going to be a little bit lighter, but he just pulls the trigger. He does not play with any hesitation. He plays with ultimate aggressiveness and confidence and urgency.”

Jeremiah went on to praise Witherspoon’s edge and energy. Brown and Martin echoed those comments when asked during their combine media sessions about their teammate.

“He’s an ultimate competitor,” Brown said. “His willingness to play against anybody and dominate is why he’s special.”

Jeremiah also had flattering comments for Brown and Martin, whom Kiper ranked as the third- and seventh-best safeties in the draft entering combine week.

Martin, who had three interceptions, 14 passes defended, 64 tackles, three tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles in 2022, dubbed himself “the most versatile DB in this draft.” Jeremiah said Martin could be a Day 1 starting nickel in the NFL.

“He is quick and fluid,” Jeremiah said. “He can change directions. He is a physical hitter. He shows you his toughness. I’m curious to see what the pure speed is. That’s the only box left for him to check, but I thought he was somebody that could come in and be a really good nickel right away.”

When Martin spoke to the media Thursday, he noted he had heard questions about his speed.

“I’m very confident in what I’ll run,” he said. “I just want to showcase my speed, my ability, my agility.”

Martin made Kiper’s list of combine risers after he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds, third among safeties, and was best among safeties in the broad jump (11 feet, 1 inch) and vertical jump (44 inches).

Meanwhile, Brown, who attended the combine with twin brother and Illini running back Chase Brown, made NFL Network’s all-combine team with a 4.47-second 40, a 10-10 broad jump and a 40½-inch vertical. Jeremiah predicted strong testing for Brown, who had six interceptions, 13 passes defended, 59 tackles, 3½ tackles for a loss, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in 2022.

“He has great range,” Jeremiah said. “You’ll see him undercut routes. He is explosive. … He is outstanding on special teams.”

All three defensive backs expressed appreciation for being at the event together. They represented an Illinois defense that ranked among the best in the nation in points (12.8) and yards (273.5) allowed per game under coach Bret Bielema, former defensive coordinator Ryan Walters — now the head coach at Purdue — and defensive backs coach Aaron Henry, who was promoted to defensive coordinator.

“It’s showing we’ve got the best DBs in the country,” Martin said. “Just to have DBs rolling in every year like this is great, just to showcase our ability and what the University of Illinois brings.”


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