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Devon Witherspoon Continues To Impress: "It's Special What He's Doing As A Rookie"

Seahawks rookie cornerback Devon Witherspoon is quickly establishing himself as a difference-maker for the defense.


Inevitably, when a young player begins to emerge, people want to make comparisons to a star player who came before him.

There's a problem with that line of thinking, however, when it comes to Seahawks rookie cornerback Devon Witherspoon. No one seems to be able to find quite the right comp. There have been plenty of other players who are sticky in coverage like Witherspoon, or who can blitz from various defensive back positions, or who can deliver a big hit, or who has the football intelligence and instincts to diagnose things faster than most of his peers, or who plays with contagious energy.

But one player who does all those things in a 6-foot, 185-pound package like Witherspoon? That, the rookie's teammates say, is hard to compare to anyone.

As safety Jamal Adams put it, Devon Witherspoon "reminds me of Devon Witherspoon, man. He's that guy. I've been excited since he came here. One of the smartest rookies I've ever been around. Just a complete baller, game changer, can do it all. That's my guy." 

When Bobby Wagner, who has played with plenty of physical cornerbacks, was asked if he'd seen another cornerback Witherspoon's size play with that type of physicality, the Seahawks captain said, "Not too many to be honest. He likes to hit, he likes to make tackles, he likes to make plays, he thrives on that. I really don't know who to compare him too besides himself."

OK, well at least one person watching Seahawks games sees a little resemblance between Witherspoon's game and that of one of his teammates who used to be a nickel cornerback before making the switch to safety.

"I never forget, it might've been his second or third game here when he was playing nickel, and my mom called me after the game and she was like, 'He plays kind of like how you play,'" said Seahawks safety Quandre Diggs. "I was like, 'I can see that,' because I played nickel and she just puts two-and-two together. He says he's 180, but he's doing it at 175 pounds soaking wet. I think it's impressive. I love it. It brings energy, it brings juice."

Witherspoon's very young NFL career already includes a pick-six and two sacks, all of which came in one game, helping him earn NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors following Seattle's Week 4 win over the Giants. But the play that got a lot of people's attention was the huge hit he put on Cardinals receiver Rondale Moore last week, a clean but ferocious blow that would have made Kam Chancellor proud.

"He's not afraid to make tackles, he's not afraid to put his body in there," Wagner said. "This is just the beginning; I feel like he's still learning and still growing and I think those hits are going to be more violent and happen more often once he starts to figure everything out."

For Witherspoon, playing physical is nothing new—it was a big part of his game at Illinois, and part of why the Seahawks liked him enough to make him the fifth pick in the 2023 draft—he just sees hits like the one he made last weekend as a continuation of the style of play that has served him well since he was a kid. 

"That's always been me since I was a kid," Witherspoon said. "I went to college in the Big 10, if you know about the Big 10 you know you got to tackle. Physicality that's just something you got to want to do. I just like to do what I like to do. I just want to hit people."

Witherspoon's Week 7 performance included a lot more than one big hit, and it could have been another stat sheet-filling performance if not for a few flags away from the play. He intercepted a pass in the end zone, but that was overturned by a roughing the passer penalty, then later he had a sack that was negated by a debatable illegal contact call deep down the field.

Yet even without another sack and interception on his resume, Witherspoon's play has been getting notice. In addition to that player of the week award, he has started to get mentioned as a favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Pro Football Focus, meanwhile, has Witherspoon as its highest-graded cornerback in the NFL. Not rookie cornerback, cornerback, period. Witherspoon is also the highest-graded defensive rookie by PFF, minimum 200 snaps.

"He's a phenomenal football player," said Adams. "Hat's off to him. He's very smart, he's very coachable, and he listens. It's a rare find and it's a reason why he's a top-five pick."

What has made Witherspoon's fast start all the more impressive is the fact that he has been juggling two positions, playing both left cornerback and the nickel spot inside, and doing so despite missing a significant portion of training camp and the preseason, as well as the season-opener, due to a hamstring injury.

Despite not playing the nickel corner spot in college, Witherspoon likes the opportunities that come with playing that position, and it's a spot that allows him to really show off the instincts and playmaking ability that caused Seahawks coach Pete Carroll to compare Witherspoon to Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu on the day Seattle drafted him.

"What I like most about playing nickel is that you're involved in the whole game plan," Witherspoon said. "You get to blitz, you get to cover, you get to really enjoy everything. That's what I like most about nickel."

Having played nickel earlier in his career while he was with Detroit, Diggs can really appreciate what Witherspoon is doing so early in his career.

"You have to cover, you have to know run gaps, you have to be smart, you have to make calls," Diggs said. "It's just one of those positions for me, is probably the hardest on the defensive side of the ball. I've seen elite corners try to go inside, and they're like, 'Oh no, I can't do this, it's too much space.' To have been able to cover all of that space, be physical, make tackles, know run gaps, it's special what he's doing as a rookie that missed a lot of time during training camp."

And it's only fitting that part of Witherspoon's game that has received a lot of attention is his physical play, because if there's one trait that defines the improvements the team has made on defense this season, and particularly over the last month, it's the physicality and effort that the entire group plays with.

Yes, there are plenty of numbers that demonstrate the defensive improvements, from the increase in pass-rush production since the start of the year, to the fact that Seattle has held three straight opponents under 250 yards, to the defense allowing just three second half points in the last three games, to the 30 total points surrendered over those three games. But for defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt, it's the physical play and the effort that jump out more than any numbers.

"How hard and how physical guys are playing," Hurtt said. " If you turn the volume off of the TV and just watch us play, what's the speed, the tenacity, how physical we're playing is the first thing I want to see. Even when you watch opponents' film, is how hard and how physical do they play. That's the number one thing."

Diggs, who is in his fifth season with the Seahawks, has felt that shift when it comes to the defense's physicality.

"We want to be physical, not that we haven't tried to be physical, but I feel like this year, people see on tape, see us flying around, they're seeing guys get hit," he said. "Teams see that, they see that the week of preparation, they're like, 'These guys, they're thudding up.' You got JB (Jordyn Brooks), you got Bobby (Wagner), you've got all of our D-linemen, and you have us in the back end that you have to deal with. For us, we just try to take these opportunities to go play the game we love, be blessed, we're healthy enough to do it. I think it's just one of those things, you see one guy do it, you want to go compete and you want to be the most physical player out there."

Devon Witherspoon is a cornerback for the Seahawks and was drafted No. 5 overall in 2023. Take a look at photos of Witherspoon during his college years at Illinois and so far through his rookie season. Witherspoon was a consensus All-American and Big Ten Tatum–Woodson Defensive Back of the Year in 2022 at Illinois.

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