CHAMPAIGN — If you ask any Illinois football player who the team’s top trash talker is, you’ll only get one answer: cornerback Devon Witherspoon
"Spoon is number one," receiver Isaiah Williams said. "Spoon is at one and then we go to like five."
The fourth-year junior corner is one of the experienced starters for an Illinois defense that improved in 2021. He earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors. He’ll have a chance at vaulting up draft boards like Illinois safety Kerby Joseph did last season.
In his past few seasons, he’s climbed up the depth chart and is set to be the team’s shutdown corner. He’s also cemented himself as a nuisance if you’re an opposing receiver.
"It's just so much," receiver Casey Washington said, "It's like you're outside and there's flies around you. There's a bunch of gnats and you're just smacking all of them and you're good for like two seconds. You walk away and the gnats are right back in your face."
If you’re a defensive player, he’s an energetic presence that boosts the room.
“I love it,” defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “I tell him he better start talking, he better make the game personal, otherwise, it’s hard to play defense if you don’t.”
Someone like Witherspoon has a lot to brag about, rising from a junior in high school who was playing football for the first time to a recruit destined for junior college before he got the offer from Illinois.
His confidence has been there since he got on campus, and led to him making an immediate impact as the only true freshman defender to start a game in 2019.
"That young man walks in the building talking," Henry said. "Walks in all the position meeting rooms talking. Spoon is a big personality, man. Ain't too many Spoons out there."
The next step for Witherspoon is an impressive season as the No. 1 corner to cement his draft stock. He’s been on multiple mock draft boards and if he takes the next step, he could be an All-Big Ten player.
Witherspoon has risen quickly in part because of his confidence, so that’s not something that is likely to waiver now.
"I gotta talk trash," Witherspoon said. "It's just me. I can't live without doing it."
Witherspoon has become one of the leaders of the Illini cornerback with the losses of Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs from the past two seasons.
He sets the example for how Henry, a coach from Witherspoon’s home state of Florida, wants the group to embrace a certain kind of swagger and confidence.
In a football age that has cracked down on pass interference and has seen bigger and more athletic receivers, it seems like it might be more difficult than ever to be a cover corner.
Witherspoon’s confidence and trash talk is a good foil to fight back and succeed.
"He plays the game the way you want it to be played," defensive backs coach Aaron Henry said. "Especially at this position. You want to be super confident. You want him to believe in his ability every single play; you want him to believe that he's the best corner out there and that's how he plays."