With their third-round pick in the 2017 draft, the 49ers' new regime selected Sacramento native Ahkello Witherspoon, cornerback out of the University of Colorado.
Witherspoon, if you didn’t know, had a very interesting path to getting drafted. He was a late bloomer as far as height goes. As a junior at Christian Brothers High School, he was a mere 5-foot-8. He continued to grow until his sophomore year at Colorado, where he stopped at 6-foot-3.
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The corner had a brief stay in between at Sacramento City College. It was there Witherspoon was coached by a good friend of mine, Jordan McGowan.
Jordan reached out to me during Witherspoon’s freshman year telling me he had a 6-foot-3 corner, and was wondering if I could help his recruiting process by sending his film to my former coaches at Division II Arkansas-Monticello. Well, as it turned out, Witherspoon never really needed my help. Witherspoon’s on-field play, as well as academic excellence, landed him a scholarship with Colorado. It was there Witherspoon showed the traits the 49ers were looking to build their secondary around. Tall, long-armed, quick-footed cornerbacks.
There were questions about Witherspoon’s physicality. A clip of him missing a tackle was played several times during the draft process – and an encounter with Carlos Hyde didn’t help either. But once Witherspoon stepped on the field during his first preseason game, he answered all questions about his willingness to get a little dirty.
After being inactive the first few games of the regular season, Witherspoon flashed that same willingness to tackle in more meaningful games.
The 49ers didn’t draft Witherspoon to tackle, though. In a spread passing league you need players who can cover. The first thing that jumps out to me about Witherspoon’s cover skills is his patience. Quick feet and patience combined with his ability to trust his speed and calmly read down receivers will make him a tough match up for opposing pass-catchers.
Anyone who follows me on social media knows I preach not getting upfield shoulder. Getting too far upfield shoulder will leave defenders vulnerable to comebacks and in-breaking routes, oftentimes making the defensive back late to breaking up the pass or getting turned around on an in-breaking route.
On Witherspoon’s pick against the Jags there was clearly a miscommunication between Blake Bortles and his receiver Keelan Cole. Witherspoon was even with Cole so Bortles was thinking back-shoulder. Witherspoon had the same thing in mind and capitalized on his awareness.
In Week 14 the Texans posed a tough match up with All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins and the speedy Will Fuller. Against Hopkins, Witherspoon played great technique. Hands-on at the line of scrimmage, read the receiver down and didn’t get upfield shoulder. But like I always say, the receivers get paid too. Hopkins was able to make a great diving catch as the ball was thrown away from the 6-foot-3 cornerback.
When guarding speedy receivers you might need to play upfield shoulder. I’m not big on speed turns, but with Witherspoon’s great feet and fluidity, he was able to flip and squeeze in one motion allowing him to connected to Fuller’s hip.
That wasn’t the only time Witherspoon used a speed turn to stay in position to make a play. Against Philadelphia in what was his first career start, he recorded an interception of MVP candidate Carson Wentz while guarding fellow rookie Mack Hollins.
Witherspoon gave up a deep ball against the Cardinals and Eagles game. Aside from that, guarding deep passes was a strength of his and something I expect him to keep improving on. With great length and make-up speed he will be a tough match up for any receiver downfield.
Fit with 49ers:
Witherspoon turned out to be everything the 49ers thought he’d be when they drafted him. With a season of experience under his belt and All-Pro defensive back Richard Sherman coming in to take Witherspoon under his wing, the ceiling for the 49ers' young cornerback is extremely high.
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