Illinois coach Bielema: Seahawks get ‘relentless’ worker in Witherspoon

May 3, 2023, 12:31 PM

Seattle Seahawks draft Devon Witherspoon...

Illinois defensive back Devon Witherspoon breaks up a pass in the end zone intended for Virginia's Lavel Davis Jr., during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, in Champaign, Ill. Illinois won 24-3. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

When the Seattle Seahawks were on the clock with the No. 5 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, all eyes were on Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter.

Not only were most fans and analysts of the belief that the Hawks would take the All-American D-lineman as it would help fill Seattle’s top need, but the cameras were on Carter at that point as well.

Instead, the Seahawks went with another defender, Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon, who was joined by his college coach, Bret Bielema, at the draft.

Devon Witherspoon: Why going to Seattle Seahawks at No. 5 ‘means a lot’

Bielema saw the attention on Carter when the Seahawks were on the clock, and explained to Seattle Sports’ Bump and Stacy what happened in the green room.

“The cameras started to move to another prospect in the green room there that everybody thought was gonna go next, and I literally turned and I looked at Spoon and he wasn’t looking at me, but I saw him look at his phone, pull it over, look at it and start smiling and pick it up, and then I could begin to see what happened,” Bielema said Tuesday to Seattle Sports’ Bump and Stacy.

While few expected the Seahawks to take Witherspoon with the fifth overall pick, Bielema had a feeling it was going to happen as Seattle general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll reached out to him right before the draft.

“I actually got a call from John Schneider and Coach Carroll the day before, so I knew something was up,” Bielema said. “… When I got that text from John, I started smiling because I knew something was in the air.”

Being in the green room with Witherspoon as that all happened was “very surreal,” Bielema said, but in a good way.

“I actually didn’t share with (Witherspoon) that I had spoken to John and Pete the day before just because you don’t want to put something in their mind that doesn’t come to life. But I had a feeling if he survived the third (pick), if they didn’t pick him on the third pick – I thought there was an outside chance Arizona might (take him) … I literally told my corners coach, my D-coordinator, Aaron Henry, I go, ‘I don’t know if he’s gonna go five, six or seven, but he ain’t getting past those three spots,'” Bielema said.

Bielema told Bump and Stacy he’s known Schneider for a long time and noted that he’s had a few of his college players find great success in Seattle, namely former quarterback Russell Wilson, who he’d coached at Wisconsin. He also mentioned that safety Chris Maragos and running back Alex Collins played for the Seahawks and think very fondly of their time in Seattle.

“Just several other guys that I think the world of that have gone through that organization and love that environment, that culture, and obviously when you have a player that can take part in an organization that you think can build success, it’s fun to see them have that,” Bielema said.

Bielema became the head coach at Illinois in 2021, so his staff actually inherited Witherspoon. It’s safe to say that the newest Seahawks cornerback has made quite the impression.

“He just is a guy that as competitive as he is on gameday, he’s even more competitive in practice because now he knows the guys. I don’t care what the situation is … he is going to compete his tail off on a daily basis to be at his best on any given snap. A relentless work ethic,” Bielema said. “A lot of times … I think wide receivers and DBs (have a reputation of) ‘These guys don’t love the weight room, they don’t love to work., they don’t love to do all this.’ And it’s the exact opposite. Spooner’s engaged. He knows that the work that he puts in on Monday through Friday pays off on Saturdays, and I think in the NFL it will be the same thing.”

Bielema said Witherspoon is great at studying and preparing, and that coupled with his awareness on the field makes for quite the combination.

“He really, truly understands splits, cuts, if he’s into the boundary or to the field,” he said.

A play that many have highlighted from Witherspoon’s career is a big hit he had against Indiana when the Hoosiers attempted a screen pass with a running back that Witherspoon blew up (it’s the first play in the video below).

“I always say this: I think Spoon probably knew that play was going to be run before the quarterback even called it,” Bielema said. “He just truly has great instincts, and the best news is I think his best football is yet to come.”

Witherspoon may have developed into an All-American and No. 5 overall pick, but he has quite the chip on his shoulder. Or, as Bielema says, chips on both shoulders.

“He wasn’t only not a three-star, two-star or one-star (recruit), he was a 0.0 star when he got recruited out of high school,” he said. “So this kid carries a chip on his shoulder both on the left and right. He doesn’t have one, he’s got two, and it shows up in his demeanor on a daily basis.”

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