College News & Analysis

Always the underdog: Jer’Zhan Newton’s rise to one of college football's best defensive players

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes


That’s how many high school recruits in the 2020 class were ranked above Jer’Zhan Newton, per On3’s consensus ratings. While many high school players may have been discouraged by that ranking, Newton used it as fuel to prove the doubters wrong.

“I never took it to heart,” Newton said in an exclusive interview with PFF. “I’ve always been the underdog because of my size. But I knew that I had to be better than a lot of those guys.”

At 6-foot-2 and 270 pounds, the Clearwater, Florida native came to Illinois on the smaller side for an interior defensive lineman, as many weigh more than 300 pounds. Despite this, he still recorded the most snaps among all Fighting Illini interior defensive linemen in both his true freshman and sophomore seasons. 

Nonetheless, his 57.6 grade across those two years didn’t necessarily signal that a big season would come in 2022, but Newton knew though that his third year would be critical. 

“Ever since I was in elementary school, I saw players go three-and-out,” Newton said. “My big thing coming into college was that I wanted to play three years and head off to the NFL. To do that, I needed to have a breakout season.”

To say Newton broke out would be an understatement, as his 13 tackles for loss/no-gain were tied for the most among all FBS interior defensive linemen while his 59 pressures led all Power Five interior defensive linemen. Newton finished the year as a PFF second-team All-American and was the most valuable Power Five interior defensive lineman according to PFF’s wins above average metric

With a massive season under his belt, it would seem that Newton had the requisite tape to achieve his goal and declare for the NFL draft after three years; however, something was off.

“I’d look at mock drafts and I wouldn’t see my name anywhere within the first two rounds,” Newton said. “I knew I had to change that. I want to be a first-round pick.”

So instead of following his initial plan and declaring for the 2023 NFL Draft, Newton decided to return for a fourth season and set his sights on 2024. 

Newton’s return made him the easy choice for No. 1 on PFF’s top-10 returning interior defensive linemen list, as he also has an argument to be the best returning defensive player regardless of position. When asked if that was his main goal, Newton shook his head:

“Obviously, I want to be known as the best defensive player,” Newton said. “But more than that, I want to be the best prospect in the 2024 draft. Caleb Williams will obviously be one of the top picks, but I want to be right alongside him. I want to show I can go No. 1 overall.”

Beating out the reigning Heisman winner to become the first pick may seem like a tall task, especially considering the major difference in positional value between quarterback and defensive tackle. However, another Florida native has shown Newton that it’s possible.

Jalen Carter really provided the blueprint for me,” Newton said. “How he’s talked about now is how I want to be talked about next year.”

The Georgia defensive tackle is widely regarded as one of the top prizes in the 2023 NFL Draft and could go as high as first overall. That’s because the current owner of the first pick, the Chicago Bears, doesn’t necessarily need a quarterback with Justin Fields in tow. 

“Hopefully that happens again next year,” Newton said with a laugh.

Before the 2024 draft, Newton still has a whole season to play next year. While his professional aspirations are still at the back of his mind, he has major plans for the Fighting Illini in 2023. 

“We’re going for that undefeated season and a national championship,” Newton said. “I’d love to break the sack record and go first overall. But as long as we keep winning, everyone will get recognized.”

Newton will enter the 2023 season as a preseason All-American and a top candidate for the Bednarik Award/Nagurski Trophy, which is given to the best defensive player in the country. Therefore, it’s safe to say he’s not much of an underdog anymore. However, he brushed that notion aside quickly.

“Until I’m a first-round pick, I’ll have an underdog mentality,” Newton said before pausing to think. “Well, then I’ll be an underdog because I’ll be a rookie and nobody expects much from rookies. I guess that underdog mindset is just instilled in me. I haven’t made it yet.”

When asked what “making it” means, Newton responded:

“I made it when I’m one of the greatest ever.”

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