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Illinois coach Bret Bielema believes Devon Witherspoon is game-changing player Bears must consider selecting

1 year agoChris Emma

Illinois head football coach Bret Bielema knows about producing prized NFL prospects, and he has some advice for the Bears’ brass ahead of the NFL Draft.

If the Bears are on the clock with the No. 9 overall pick and Illinois cornerback prospect Devon Witherspoon is available, Bielema says they shouldn’t hesitate with the pick.

“Make it happen in one tick on the clock,” Bielema told Marquee Sports Network. “Like, it can’t happen fast enough. I think he changes the dynamic of any room he walks into. Not in a false-bravado way. I know there’s a lot of that in today’s world. But this guy believes he can change the direction of a game in any given play. 

“He’s going to represent you in the right way. I think the best thing about him is his best football is in front of him.”

Of course, Witherspoon very well may be off the board when the Bears are slated to select in the ninth slot of the first round. But for general manager Ryan Poles and his draft team, the possibility of Witherspoon is one to strongly consider. 

Cornerback is not a position of great need in this draft for the Bears, who boast Jaylon Johnson for an outside position and have Kyler Gordon developing in the nickelback position. But the selection of Witherspoon could solidify one of the top young secondaries in the NFL for Chicago.

If the Bears indeed covet the best player available, there’s a case to be made that it’s Witherspoon – one of the most coveted prospects in this entire class. He was a two-time All-Big Ten cornerback and consensus All-American last season for the Fighting Illini program.

When Bielema took over as Illinois’ head coach in December of 2020, he hoped to form his own impressions of the players he inherited. Witherspoon stood out almost immediately to his new head coach.

“Once you got around him, you realized how magnetic his personality was,” Bielema said. “Really a tough, fierce competitor. A guy who loves competition. He has continued to grow from there. Literally about the fourth or fifth game this year, I was like, OK, I’m not going to get him back for another year. That ship has sailed.

“He’s got short-term memory. As a corner, I think that’s so important. I can count on one hand how many times I saw him get beat in practice or a game, but when it does happen, it’s like pull the pants up, double dip and it isn’t going to happen again. Extremely tough competitor. Some guys go into a hole when they get beat. He actually takes it as a challenge. And then his football IQ, his intelligence, his awareness is really at a high level. 

“A lot of times you’re out there on an island and there’s little things you can recognize by where the ball is spotted, where the receivers align, what the down and distances is, and you can tell a lot of things with the intel before the ball is snapped. I think he has a great, great presence and awareness to do that.”

Witherspoon is expected to be Illinois’ highest-selected draft prospect since Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice were chosen second and third, respectively, in the 1996 NFL Draft. 

Under the watch of Bielema, Illinois has enjoyed a turnaround that included an 8-5 mark last season and a berth in the ReliaQuest Bowl. Champaign is now once again a pipeline for NFL talent as Witherspoon, as the Fighting Illini could produce four players selected in the top 100 picks of this draft. Cornerback Jartavius Martin, safety Sydney Brown and running back Chase Brown are among Illinois’ other prospects drawing NFL attention.

The turnaround Bielema has led at Illinois stems from these premier players buying into the culture he created while also embracing their own NFL aspirations. Bielema has reminded the Fighting Illini of stars like Russell Wilson, Joe Thomas, J.J. Watt, Frank Ragnow and Hunter Henry, all players he coached at Wisconsin and Arkansas.

Before heading off to Kansas City next week for the NFL Draft, Bielema and Illinois will host a prized high school cornerback prospect and remind that he can become the next Witherspoon in Champaign. The culture he sought for the Fighting Illini is now in place.

Bielema has reminded those in the NFL that Witherspoon is a prospect capable of making a great difference in the league.

“That’s kind of what he is,” Bielema said. “I think these NFL coaches and GMs and personnel people I’ve been talking to, they just know that with one of his plays, he can change the direction of a game in a heartbeat. His best football is in front of him.”

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