After Lions rookie Joseph’s success, Illinois DBs look to make mark on draft class

Detroit News

Indianapolis — Sydney Brown is aware of the fact that Kerby Joseph’s rookie season has nothing to do with his own.

A year after the Detroit Lions made Joseph (pick No. 97) Illinois’ highest-drafted defensive back since Tavon Wilson was taken 48th overall in 2012, there are already two Illini threatening to reset the ledger.

And yet, as empowering as it might be to see someone thrive from your exact situation, Brown was adamant about not letting Joseph’s success be confused with his own.

“That means nothing (for) me, but that’s great for Kerby,” Brown, a projected day-two pick, said. “Kerby worked for it. Kerby earned the respect that he’s getting in the NFL, and nothing less than that.”

“I mean, it’s encouraging to see. It’s definitely good, because you got that guy in your room in the last couple years. But again, Kerby worked for that time on the field that he had with the Lions, and the respect he’s getting is from his style of play.”

Aside from Brown, a ball-hawking safety who recorded a whopping six interceptions last year, there’s also cornerback Devon Witherspoon, a late riser up draft boards and popular mock for Detroit at No. 6. He had a marvelous senior year, racking up 14 pass breakups and three interceptions while surrendering an immaculate 25.3 passer rating when targeted, per PFF.

Though he’s a newcomer to the top-10 party, it’s almost impossible to imagine him falling out of the first round at this point. And there’s also Illinois safety Jartavius Martin, who’s more commonly projected to go on day three but still has potential to creep into day two.

“It’s an unreal feeling for all of us, cause we’ve been playing with each other, basically all our careers,” Witherspoon said. “Knowing what we went through and just knowing how we came out on top this year, it just feels good.”

Before head coach Bret Bielema showed up in 2020, Illinois hasn’t exactly been known as a factory for NFL talent in the last decade. The last time the Illini had a first-round pick also came in 2012, when defensive end Whitney Mercilus (No. 26) and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins (No. 30) went within a couple of picks of each other.

And yes, Brown is right: The NFL success of Joseph, who had four interceptions and two forced fumbles last season, means nothing for whether he or Witherspoon or Martin will succeed at the next level.

But, it is possible that Joseph’s explosiveness has given teams an idea of what they’re going to get when they draft another Illinois defensive back with a mean streak. Witherspoon has an abundance of what the kids are now calling ‘that dawg in him.’

Just flip on the film: He’s relentless in press coverage. He lays wood on ball carriers. All of the concerns about him being undersized are valid, but perhaps less so when you realize that it’s developed a significant chip on his shoulder.

“We just physical and we here to play,” Witherspoon said. “We were to make our mark, and everybody who doubted us, we just here to prove everybody wrong.”

Just the idea of pairing him with a player like Joseph in Detroit’s secondary has to be enticing for head coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes, who have demonstrated how much they love players with that exact mentality.

“Just when you sit in there and you hear them talk about football. There’s a fire burning in them. And they can’t sit in their seat. They got to get up to talk. They got to tell you what’s going on, ‘this is what I think, this is what I —’ Campbell said.

“You can’t fake that. … And those guys are rare. If you can find those guys and they’ve got some ability — which most guys here do — it’s hard not to like them.”

Twitter: @nolanbianchi

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