Throughout the fall at Steelers Depot, we will be highlighting several possible draft prospects the Pittsburgh Steelers may have interest in for the 2023 NFL Draft and their performance during the college football season.
The Fighting Illini took care of business Saturday against Northwestern, routing their Ben Ten Conference opponent 41-3. The defense swarmed the Wildcats all game and CB #31 Devon Witherspoon had a statement game to cap off the regular season on what has been a breakout campaign for the redshirt junior. Witherspoon notched four total tackles and picked off two passes in the contest, showing off the ball skills to compliment the stellar coverage he has played all season.
Northwestern primarily is a run-heavy offense, so Witherspoon saw a limited number of targets come his way. Still, his coverage skills were easy to pick up when watching the tape as he can be sticky in man coverage, having the fluidity to turn and run with receivers across the field and up the seam.
We see the former here on this rep where Witherspoon is at the top of the screen and stays on the receiver’s hip pocket throughout the rep and remains in phase as he breaks inside. Witherspoon could use his hands more to jam the receiver at the line, but overall, a good rep in coverage.
Witherspoon also excels when asked to play zone coverage, having the instincts to break on the ball once thrown and the knack to make plays on the ball when it’s in the air.
Check out this play Witherspoon makes on the ball when he recognizes the underneath pass, comes downhill on the intended target, and picks off the missed catch attempt by the running back in the flat, getting a big return on the runback by evading several tacklers until he finally stumbles and is brought down in Wildcat territory.
Witherspoon’s second INT of the game comes right before the half on a Hail Mary attempt to the end zone as the Wildcats try and get on the scoreboard before the intermission. Witherspoon positions himself in the scrum and leaps into the air to snag the jump ball in the end zone, ending the half with his second INT and keeping Northwestern from getting on the board.
Here is another view of the pick where we see Witherspoon play the ball like a receiver would, positioning himself after peeling off his man to make the catch in front of Northwestern’s tight end. The quality of the pick isn’t the greatest as Witherspoon takes away a ball that’s up for grabs, but this play does show his awareness and feel for playing the football in the air as a defensive playmaker in the secondary.
Witherspoon and the rest of the Illini defense had to play their fair share of run defense in this one as Northwestern looked to establish the ground game. It was a mixed bag for Witherspoon in this aspect of the game as he showed willingness often as a run defender, but his technique could use some work.
Watch this tackle attempt by Witherspoon as he comes downhill to meet the runner in the second level but ducks his head and throws his shoulder into the runner. The runner gets dragged down from behind, but you would like to see Witherspoon make a better form tackle in space.
Here is a similar play later in the second half where Witherspoon gets off the block by the WR and is in position to make the tackle, but instead decides to make a business decision and just lunges forward and tags the runner with two hands as the rest of his teammates wrap up the RB and take him down after picking up the first.
While the previous two plays were pretty poor by Witherspoon in run support, there were other instances where he showed more willingness and aggressiveness as a tackler.
Here is one instance in the third quarter where Witherspoon comes off his receiver once he sees the QB checking down to the slot receiver on the curl route, arriving on the scene right as the catch is made. Witherspoon wraps up the receiver around the waist and starts to swing him down, getting help from a teammate to get the receiver on the ground for a minimal gain.
Overall, it was a strong performance for Witherspoon who has been one of the toughest CB matchups all season long, being a pest for opposing passing games. He has some of the best coverage metrics in college football and provided another example of the challenge he can be for opposing passing games in this game against Northwestern. Still, Witherspoon isn’t without his warts as he can be more consistent as a tackler in terms of technique as well as desire to get his nose dirty and avoid making business decisions when he has teammates there to do the dirty work for him.
In 2022, Witherspoon now has posted 41 total stops, 2.5 TFLs, three INTs, and 14 PBUs. He was just named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year and was recently elected to Pro Football Focus’s 2022 All-American Team for his efforts this season. Witherspoon’s analytics suggested he was one of the best coverage defenders in all of college football this season, and with the added ball production of two INTs in the regular season finale, Witherspoon is in-position to cement his status as a second round selection at worst and a potential first-rounder this coming spring.
What are your thoughts on Devon Witherspoon’s performance against Northwestern? Do you think he showcased the skill set of a CB1 in the league? Do you think he should be in play for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the early stages of the draft? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!