49ers rookie Ahkello Witherspoon's football passion burns at an all-time high


49ers rookie Ahkello Witherspoon's football passion burns at an all-time high

SANTA CLARA – Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was an ecology and evolutionary biology major at Colorado who has plans to become a surgeon after his NFL career concludes.

That revelation alone might have scared off some teams after growing concerns over long-term injuries associated with playing the sport and a spate of early NFL retirements in recent years.

But midway through his rookie season, Witherspoon said during a wide-ranging interview on “The 49ers Insider Podcast” that his passion and determination to have a successful career have only increased since entering the NFL draft.

“I’m even more excited to build a career in this league,” said Witherspoon, 22, a third-round pick of the 49ers. “I thought I knew what it was and I was excited coming in. But then getting a taste of it and being in it, it’s even more inspiring and it makes me want to work even harder.

“In terms of the violence and what could go wrong, I just live with faith in God and fear is second. If something happens, it was meant to happen. I could die walking out of this building right now. That’s kind of the mindset I have. You can control what you can control. It’s as simple as that, and that’s the approach I take.”

Witherspoon’s regular season got off to a rocky start. After being inactive for the 49ers’ first four games of the season behind starting cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson, Witherspoon made his NFL debut Oct. 8 against the Indianapolis Colts.

He played six snaps before exiting the game and being diagnosed with a concussion. Witherspoon, who first played football as a senior at Christian Brothers High in Sacramento, had two concussions in his past, he said.

“It’s part of the game,” he said. “If it happens, it’s unfortunate. You just want to come back healthy and keep playing.”

Witherspoon has taken over a starting job in the 49ers’ defense. His emergence also enabled the 49ers to trade inconsistent Robinson to the New York Jets for a fifth-round draft pick.

Witherspoon is learning how to apply his intelligence to optimize his success on the football field. Smarts can only carry him so far, and then he has to learn how and when to clear his mind and just play the game.

“I feel like I’ve found that balance where pre-snap, you want to see things, analyze, understand what could come and what could happen,” Witherspoon said. “But once that ball is snapped, you just got to react and respond to what the receiver is doing. And that’s one thing I’ve definitely improved upon.”

Kilgore: All of 49ers on same page 'for the first time in a long time'


Kilgore: All of 49ers on same page 'for the first time in a long time'

The 49ers’ coaching staff made its feelings known to center Daniel Kilgore throughout the season.

But, in the past, that would not have necessarily meant everyone in the organization had the same thoughts about Kilgore, who was scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.

“The whole season, coaches and I had a good relationship,” Kilgore said Wednesday on conference call with Bay Area reporters. “Just talking and having one-on-ones with various coaches, I had a positive outlook for the future.

“But that’s just one thing. The coaches have an opinion of you, but then there’s also the front office. That’s two totally different things. And I think for the first time in a long time, our coaches and the front office are on the same page.”

Kilgore was working out back home in Tennessee on Wednesday when he signed a three-year contract to avoid hitting the free-agent market. Kilgore, 30, a seven-year NFL veteran, described the contract as a team-friendly deal.

The 49ers presented Kilgore with a contract offer during the season but negotiations did not get serious until just recently. While the 49ers expressed interest in retaining Kilgore, he said he did not know what the future held for him when he packed his belongings from the locker room on the day after the season ended.

“It kind of makes you nervous because in this profession, people like the younger guys,” Kilgore said. “You just never know what will happen at any time, any given day, in the NFL. So toward the end, that last day of clearing out the locker, I didn’t know if I’d be back. I didn’t know if the Niners would want me back.”

Kilgore was named the winner of the organization’s top honor for an offensive lineman. Kilgore won the Bobb McKittrick Award for best exemplifying the dedication, excellence and commitment of the long-time 49ers offensive line coach. Kilgore started all 29 games in which he appeared the past two seasons, including a career-high 16 games last season.

"I've been here seven years and I consider the Bay Area my second home,” Kilgore said. “To be able to extend my career wearing the 49ers jersey was special to me. This team is heading in the right direction, I wanted to be a part of it."

Why the 49ers did not hesitate to pay Garoppolo big money

Matt Maiocco

Why the 49ers did not hesitate to pay Garoppolo big money

When Jimmy Garoppolo signed a contract that could pay him up to $137.5 million over the next five years, he was asked what convinced him during his nine weeks with the organization that he wanted to be with the 49ers for the long term.

“I think it was a number of things,” Garoppolo said last week. “The team, the acceptance that they had of me when I first got here from the get-go, the coaching staff, Kyle and Rich. It was a very welcoming environment, and I really liked that. We had some success down the stretch, and you could see that pieces were falling into place. We've got a long way to go, but I think we're moving in the right direction.”

Kyle, of course, is head coach Kyle Shanahan. Rich Scagarello is the 49ers’ quarterbacks coach, and the person from whom Garoppolo spent the most time after arriving in Santa Clara on Oct. 31 after a trade with the New England Patriots.

Garoppolo earned $3.5 million in his first four NFL seasons. His new contract makes him the NFL’s highest-paid player, making an average of $27.5 million per season, with $48.7 million fully guaranteed.

Scangarello, appearing this week on The 49ers Insider Podcast, talked about what he learned about Garoppolo from working so closely with him to teach him Shanahan's offense. Scangarello said there is no question in his mind the money will not change Garoppolo’s approach to his work.

“That’s why it was easy for the organization and everyone to invest in somebody like Jimmy Garoppolo,” Scangarello said. “I just think that’s not the kind of person he is. If you met his family, you know where he comes from, what he’s about. His brothers, his parents, are just good, solid people people. He’s made of the right stuff and I just don’t see that affecting him in that way.

“It’s just not who he is. That’s the fun part of working with somebody like that every day. When they’re really talented and they appreciate everything and they work at it, you have a chance to be a successful organization and they can be a great player. And I don’t think those things will ever affect him.”