Devon Witherspoon #31 of the Illinois Fighting Illini is seen before the game against the Chattanooga Mocs at Memorial Stadium
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NFL Draft Prospect Devon Witherspoon Didn't Play Football Until His Junior Year of High School

Imagine you picked up a new skill, say golf, back in 2017. Do you think that by 2023 you could be considered one of the best new talents entering the PGA Tour? Do you think companies and sponsors would be lining up with multimillion-dollar deals? For the vast majority of us, that's not even in the realm of possibility. But for NFL Draft prospect Devon Witherspoon, who is climbing big-board prospect rankings and mock drafts after a solid career as a cornerback at Illinois, that's exactly what happened.

Witherspoon only began covering wide receivers, making tackles and snagging interceptions in his junior year of high school. Unlike other potential first-round draft picks such as Oregon's Christian Gonzalez and Penn State's Joey Porter Jr. — who both received major press coverage when making their college football commitments — Witherspoon was just hoping a big school would take a chance on him.

No Stars? No Problem

 Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Devon Witherspoon (31) runs with the ball after an interception during an NCAA football game against the Wyoming Cowboys

Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Big-name schools such as Alabama, Florida State, USC and Texas passed up on the Pine Forest High School product out of Pensacola, Florida. But while a number of smaller schools made their pitches, the Illinois Fighting Illini came in and offered Witherspoon a chance to play against Big Ten juggernauts including Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa.

How did that work out? In 2022, Witherspoon was named First-Team All-Big Ten, a consensus All-American, and Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year. After the 2023 college football season, Witherspoon was named as a finalist for the Thorpe Award, along with Clark Phillips III of Utah and the eventual award winner, TCU's Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson.

The Witherspoon NFL Draft hype is centered on his ability to work within zone coverage and man coverage seamlessly, as his ball skills translate easily to the NFL. Whether it's pass breakups or becoming an open-field tackler, there's a reason why the Illinois cornerback is in top 10 conversations with other prospects including Will Levis, Tyree Wilson and Anthony Richardson. And that's despite missing the NFL Scouting Combine and Illinois' Pro Day due to a hamstring injury. If there's something that could give teams pause, it's him missing the Combine. Still, Witherspoon's accolades put him ahead of other corners in the draft, such as Michigan's DJ Turner II (not to be confused with the Maryland wideout who plays for the Las Vegas Raiders).

After all, with 40-yard dash times 4.46 and 4.42 seconds at a private workout at Illinois — as reported by NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah — it's clear to see why NFL teams including the Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs are in on Witherspoon.

That's quite the turnaround from not playing football until his junior year of high school.

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