Earlier in the season, Niners Live called out Ahkello Witherspoon in the article: Through the first quarter, Biggest Defensive Draft Disappointment. Now we are here to give praise when it’s due. Witherspoon worked his way into the starting line-up after being inactive for the first few games of the season. Since becoming a starter he has made positive strides in his play his rookie season.
Putting In the Work:
Witherspoon, 6’3 198 lbs., was drafted in the third round of the 2017 draft and was touted by the coaching staff as a quick-footed, agile, lanky corner who excelled at breaking up passes at the point of the catch. He was a raw talent who needed to work on tackling consistently. He struggled in the preseason and watched from the sidelines the first four games of the season.
He was eager to get on the field, but was instructed by defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley that he needed to focus on refining his technique and attention to detail to be successful in the NFL.
“I used those four weeks as another minicamp. I’m serious. I think I played better those four weeks than I did throughout training camp coming into the season. Those four weeks, the conversations that I had with (defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley) were just focused on getting better. The mental approach to my game wasn’t there in August, understanding the route concept on third and long, preparing for a dig to come and actually come, that’s something I wasn’t aware of when I came in,” Witherspoon said (via 49ers.com).
His due diligence paid off; in his first career start in week eight against the Philadelphia Eagles, he recorded his first career interception and allowed three catches on eight targets. He covered Alshon Jeffrey the majority of the contest. The 49ers have recorded only five interceptions the last two seasons, Witherspoon is responsible for one.
Key Stats: His impressive debut landed him on Pro Football Focus’ Team of Week list. Witherspoon’s overall Pro Football Focus grade is 77.4, coverage 76.7, run defense 75.8 and 59.0 in pass rush on 287 total snaps played on defense.
Witherspoon, is also not making a key error his predecessor consistently made in games; penalties. Former 49er Rashard Robinson was one of the most penalized corners in the NFL. Many of those penalties occurred on third down, which are back breakers for defenses.
Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh is pleased with his pupil’s progress and is eager to see continued growth.
“I really think he’s got a great amount of potential. It’s just a matter of whether or not he keeps that same mindset of growth. When you’ve got someone who’s internally driven like that you just admire and watch. You could see his evolution mentally as well as physically. He hasn’t even scratched the surface either,” said Saleh (via 49ers.com).
Patience is a virtue to all, is a very common saying. Ahkello’s patience paid off and he looks like a bright spot in the franchises’ future. His long frame and cat-like agility are ideal for the defense he plays in and he has natural ball skills. As he gains more experience down after down, he has the potential to be a dangerous ball hawk in the 49ers’ secondary in years to come. Look for Ahkello to finish the 2017 season strong and be a week one starter in the 2018 season.
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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus, 49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author Jimi Payne Staff Writer at Niners live. Co-Author, Content Creator, Editor, Sequoia Sims