CHAMPAIGN — Put it on tape.
It’s what Illinois defensive backs coach Aaron Henry tells his group on a daily basis.
Want to be someone opposing teams have to alter their game plan to contend with? Put it on tape.
Have aspirations to play at the next level? Put it on tape.
“I don’t care if it’s practice,” Henry said. “I don’t care if it’s a one-on-one rep. People are going to walk into this building and judge you based on what’s on film. No matter how good of a player you think you are, they’re going to look at the tape.”
Devon Witherspoon has apparently taken that directive to heart.
Not that you’d hear all about his exploits if you ask him. Witherspoon might never stop talking on the football field, but off it, he’s seriously low key. Kind of quiet and unassuming with cameras and recorders pointed his way. Basically the opposite of his on-field persona.
What Witherspoon has put on tape through three games this season is “for others to judge” according to the 6-foot, 180-pound Illinois cornerback. The fact of the matter is, through three games, Witherspoon’s put quite a bit on tape.
There was the interception in Week 0 off Wyoming quarterback Andrew Peasley on Aug. 27. An underthrown ball to be certain, but Witherspoon was in the right place at the right time because he knew, based on the formation and the tendencies he studied in preparation for the Cowboys, what play was coming.
The next week delivered another play worthy of leading a highlight reel. The literal first play of the game for the Illinois defense at Indiana on Sept. 2 saw Witherspoon, playing 7-8 yards off the line of scrimmage, recognize a screen pass to Shaun Shivers coming as the ball was snapped. Witherspoon covered the 15 yards to Shivers in roughly two seconds before he laid out the Hoosiers’ running back with a clean, but still brutal, hit.
Then there was the performance that earned Witherspoon Senior Bowl Defensive Player of the Week honors after Illinois beat Virginia 24-3 on Sept. 10. The Pensacola, Fla., native finished that near-shutout with seven tackles and three pass breakups, pushing him past teammate Quan Martin for the national lead with six after the first three games of the Illini’s season.
“It probably says something, but, for me, I try not to think about that,” Witherspoon said about what he’s put on tape this season. “I just try to go out there and play with my guys. … I think everything is really falling into place with me understanding more about the game than I did earlier in my career. That’s really what it is.”
Witherspoon broke into the starting secondary as a freshman playing for Lovie Smith in 2019 with three starts in 13 games. He transitioned from what was still a majority special teams role into starting as a cornerback in 2020 for Smith, played and started 10 games at cornerback for Bret Bielema last season and returned this season a critical piece for the Illini defense.
“I think it’s very evident that Spoon is very confident, and I think when players play confident, they play fast and play physical,” Bielema said. “He’s confident because he’s seen a lot, but he’s learned a lot. His football IQ is at an unprecedented level, I think, since I’ve been around him.”
Bielema worked to keep feeding Witherspoon’s football IQ this week during Illinois’ bye. Held out of Wednesday’s development practice, Bielema positioned Witherspoon behind the defense for the day to get a safety’s view. He wanted his No. 1 cornerback to get the full-field view to have an even better grasp on different offensive formations and have a better understanding of information he gets from safeties Sydney Brown and Kendall Smith during games.
“He sat back there and was talking the whole time,” Bielema said. “He was talking to the defense and talking and talking. It’s just another way to bring personality out of him and leadership.”
Witherspoon’s growth into a potential All-Big Ten caliber cornerback has come by devoting time to work like that on and off the field. There’s plenty of film study at the Smith Center with the entire secondary in the room together. Witherspoon takes work home with him, too, putting in extra film study away from the practice facility/performance center.
“I sit down and break down the tendencies — anything I can pick up on that will give me an edge on the field,” Witherspoon said. “Film really helps me a lot. … Sometimes, it gets boring and dull and stuff, but at the end of the day, it’s going to help you perform on the field. We’re going to do it no matter what and do it with a passion, as well.”
Those efforts have only enhanced Witherspoon’s natural abilities all fueled by his aggressive approach on the field. An approach Henry said Witherspoon has to have since even though he’s listed at 6-foot and 180 pounds on the roster, both measurements might be generous.
“I want them to play on edge,” Henry said of his cornerbacks. “It’s easier for me to tell you slow down than to speed up. At this position, you have to be wired that way. If you are not — if you don’t have that confidence, that swagger and are not playing on that edge — people can take advantage of you. … Any time you’ve got guys on the back end who aren’t as long or as big as your prototypical DB, they’ve got to have some scrap and dog to them.”
Witherspoon has it. Has shown it not only with his 15 tackles, six pass breakups and one interception through three games, but also the smothering style of coverage he displayed in the win against Virginia and its collection of potential NFL-bound wide receivers.
“I think the most demoralizing part being covered by him is the little talking he has after the play,” Brown said. “He’s going to let you know he’s there. I love the energy that Spoon brings. It’s contagious.”