Devon Witherspoon’s mom got him to the Seahawks. Jaxon Smith-Njigba carries a chip, too
Devon Witherspoon’s mom was beaming beneath her Seahawks team cap.
Her granddaughters were next to her. So were one of her sons, and her daughter. They were wearing Seattle team gear, too.
She was looking up at her son holding his new, blue, 21 Seahawks game jersey. The coach who made Witherspoon’s dreams come true, Pete Carroll was on the cornerback’s right. John Schneider, the general manager who made the 22-year-old an instant multimillionaire on Thursday with the fifth pick in the NFL draft, was to Witherspoon’s left.
Appropriately down in front of the Seahawks’ main auditorium Friday? The woman who convinced Seattle’s new, lockdown cornerback to play football when he was a junior in high school in their hometown of Pensacola, Florida.
“Good for Mom! Nice call,” Carroll said with a thankful smile, looking at Rhasheda Bickley.
Her son Witherspoon was a 150-pound point guard on the Pine Forest High School basketball team in Pensacola in 2017.
“I had hoop dreams,” he said Friday, smiling.
Bickley told Devon he should go out for football in his junior year at Pine Forest. He hadn’t played it since seventh grade, back when he was playing “baseball, soccer, every sport,” Mom said.
Witherspoon was reluctant. He thought he was headed to play college basketball, not football.
“Play just one year,” Bickley implored to her son.
A loss to Pine Forest’s rival to end Witherspoon’s junior, debut football season fueled him to come back to play his senior year. That’s when his new sport became his main sport.
Despite weighing less than some team managers, Witherspoon had seven interceptions and 79 tackles with two touchdowns in 2018. The Pensacola News Journal named him the Florida panhandle area’s high school player of the year.
He had yet to achieve the SAT score required to enroll in a four-year college. He was taking summer school classes and already on the football team at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.
Witherspoon eventually got his qualifying test score that summer four years ago. That’s when Illinois secondary coach Keynodo Hudson brought up to head coach Lovie Smith, the former coach of the NFL’s Chicago Bears, that the Illini needed to consider signing this ball-hawking, attacking cornerback from Pensacola.
His high school coaches helped get Witherspoon’s test scores and paperwork to the NCAA and to Illinois. Instead of junior college, he joined the Illini one week into their fall preseason practice in 2019.
He said Friday he weighed “about 159 pounds” when he arrived on the Illinois campus four years ago.
But he had an aggressiveness and decisiveness on the field, bulldozing ball carriers and attacking passes in the air, that Carroll said he hadn’t seen since he coached Troy Polamalu at USC. That was 20-plus years ago.
Yes, Troy Polamalu. The Hall-of-Fame safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“His make-up...It’s how he approaches the game, the way he sees his opportunities and stuff. I’ve always held Troy in high regard in that,” Carroll said.
“This (Witherspoon) is the closest I’ve come to that, someone talking and acting and performing like that.
“I know I’ve said something that challenges a lot of stuff. But I’m just telling you how I feel.
The former point guard with “hoops dreams” is slotted by the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement into a four-year Seahawks contract worth about $8.3 million per year.
“It’s just kind of indescribable,” Witherspoon said.
Friday, on no sleep, off a pre-dawn flight from the draft in Kansas City, he and his family were in the middle of a life-changing 24 hours — less than six years after Mom’s life-changing decision to get him to play football.
“Without her, I wouldn’t be here,” Witherspoon said Friday.
Mom beamed again.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s path to Seattle
Friday was the first time Jaxon Smith-Njigba had ever been to Seattle.
“Yeah, first time being in the city here with the fam. Beautiful facility. Beautiful weather, got the lake (Lake Washington) out there,” he said, with his mother Jami Smith, her boyfriend, and his father Maada Njigba a few feet away.
“So excited me and my family got to come out here.”
The prized wide receiver’s path here was far different than Witherspoon’s to becoming an NFL first-round draft choice. Smith-Njigba’s pedigree is more typical.
He was a nationally heralded, five-star recruit and the player of the year for Texas’ big-time Class 6A football at Rockwall High School in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs. Every college powerhouse with goal posts wanted him. He signed with Ohio State.
“He is extremely talented,” Schneider said. “I mean, the guy scored 88 touchdowns in high school in 44 games in 6-A ball in Dallas.
In the Rose Bowl to end Ohio State’s 2021 season, Smith-Njigba put on a show that convinced Carroll and Schneider to draft him. He dominated Utah with 15 receptions, 347 yards and three touchdowns from C.J. Stroud, smashing Rose Bowl and Buckeyes records.
The first game of his final college season last September, Smith-Njigba injured his hamstring. He played only 2 1/2 games.
No matter. The Seahawks had seen plenty by then. Carroll and Schneider plus offensive coordinator Shane Waldron went to Ohio State’s pro day last month. They saw the route running and power they wanted to see.
Schneider said Smith-Njigba would have been a top-five or top-10 pick Thursday if not for his injury last fall.
“He’s got a lot of power in his lower body, a ton of body control,” Schneider said. “Elite hands. Really good eyes.
“He’s going to be a fun guy.”
Carroll said Smith-Njigba can be the third wide receiver Seattle’s been seeking for years to play in the slot inside Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf.
Not eventually. Right now.
“He seems like a pro,” Carroll said. “He seems like an experienced guy. He’s calm, he’s confident. He believes in himself. That’s conveyed when you hear him talk and how he reacts and how he plays. You feel like he’s ready to go. He’s going to be ready to fit in.”
Smith-Njigba said he’s looking forward to learning from Lockett and Metcalf, one of the NFL’s most dynamic wide-receiver duos.
“I’m excited to get in that room and learn and watch those guys,” Smith-Njigba said. “I know a little bit, for sure, what they do on the field and what they’re about on the field, but excited to be in the present with them and get to work with them.”
He’s already talked to the man who will be throwing passes to him, Geno Smith, the Seahawks’ veteran, Pro Bowl quarterback.
“I talked to Geno a little bit. I’m sure I’ll catch up with him later, too,” Smith-Njigba said. “But excited to work with him. Great arm talent. Great skill set.
“Ready to get in the room and pick his brain, for sure.”
Motivated by setbacks, slights
Smith-Njigba said the hamstring injury and mostly lost 2022 season was the hardest time of his football life.
The 5-foot-11 1/2 Witherspoon is all the way up to 185 pounds now. He’s heard forever that he’s not big enough to be where he was Friday.
“I’ve kind of been undersized my whole life,” he said.
Exactly what Carroll and the Seahawks seek: Guys with chips on their shoulders, motivation to excel and prove doubters wrong.
“I think there’s nothing like having that chip that you’ve got something to prove to bring out the best,” Carroll said. “Both of these guys have the makeup of the real competitive mentality, and you know how much we love that around here.
“That’s kind of what I was fired up about with both these guys. ...You can sense that there’s a special connection that they got something to prove. Our best guys we’ve always had here, whether they were draft picks or free agents or wherever they came from, there was a makeup to them that separated them from others.
“I think both these young men are going to show you what it means to them and then how important it is for them to find their way to make their spot here, and make the position that they fill and the role that they get to play really obvious.
“I’m really fired up about it, because you all know how I always talk about it. And these guys are really the real deal.”