Asmussen | Another honor coming soon for Newton

CHAMPAIGN — I’ve got less than a week to fill out and send in my Associated Press preseason All-American ballot.
Two spots are already taken. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Southern California’s Caleb Williams, is an easy choice for quarterback.
Though he could technically return to Los Angeles in 2024, I don’t think we will ever see him in the Big Ten.
Second guy on my ballot plays a couple miles away at First and Kirby. Illinois defensive tackle Johnny Newton seems like a lock to be on the first team.
It has been a long time since an Illinois player has had as much preseason buzz as Newton. You have to go back to 1995 with Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice.
Most of the program’s recent All-Americans came from off the pace.
The AP asks all of its poll voters to select only a first team during the preseason. The honorees will be announced later in the month, with both first and second teams.
It’s a guarantee some players not listed on the preseason teams will become All-Americans at the end of the year. How can I be so sure? Because it happened with Devon Witherspoon in 2022.
The Illinois cornerback was thought of highly going into the season. But not enough to dent the list of four cornerbacks on the first and second teams.
Georgia’s Kelee Ringo, Alabama’s Eli Ricks, Utah’s Clark Phillips and South Carolina’s Cam Smith made the cut ahead of Witherspoon.
But the former Illini got the last laugh. Witherspoon was selected fifth overall in the NFL draft and just signed a monster rookie deal with the Seattle Seahawks.
The other four would trade spots now with Witherspoon. Smith was a second-round pick. Ringo and Phillips went in the fourth round. And Ricks was undrafted.
Witherspoon is a highly competitive dude, one of the best cornerbacks at Illinois in a long time. Perhaps being overlooked in the preseason was another log on the motivation fire.
Witherspoon played in 2022 like he had something to prove. To the schools that didn’t recruit him and to the reporters who didn’t think he was good enough to be an All-American before the first game.
The good news is the writers got a second chance and corrected the mistake. Witherspoon made the first unit on the final team.
Getting noticedPick up any preseason college football magazine and you will find Newton’s name on most first-team All-American lists.
Why? Because of how the versatile 6-foot-2, 295-pound defensive tackle performed in 2022. He earned Second-Team AP All-American honors after leading Illinois in tackles for loss (14), sacks (5 1/2) and quarterback hurries (11). Almost as vital, he did all that while playing for the nation’s top scoring defense.
As a voter, one of the first items I do when evaluating players for honors is find the stars on the best units. For offensive linemen, it means looking at teams with the best run game and overall attack.
It can be difficult to figure out which defensive linemen are playing the best. Especially for the inside guys like Newton. If he is doing his job, he will occupy multiple offensive linemen, freeing his teammates to make tackles.
The Illinois linebackers, inside and out, have Newton and running mate Keith Randolph Jr. to thank for some of their success.
Newton has advantages over the other top tackles. His size, strength and motor are exceptional. They will serve him well both in 2023 and beyond.
He’s goneLike Williams at Southern Cal, Newton can return in 2024. He has another year of eligibility. But it won’t get used.
He considered the NFL draft this time around, but wisely returned for one more go. Seems like the right move for Newton, who won’t turn 21 until two days before the Illini open the 2023 season against Toledo on Sept. 2 in Champaign.
If he stays healthy and produces like he did in 2022, his draft stock will only go up.
It worked well for past Illini like Hardy and Rice, both of whom considered leaving early, came back and went second and third, respectively, in the 1996 NFL draft.
There are no guarantees for Newton, but the pro evaluations about him are positive. Especially if he delivers on the preseason hype that’s coming his way.

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