SANTA CLARA — After a challenging start to the season, 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was getting back to the level of play that impressed many at the end of his rookie year.
But Witherspoon’s season was cut short with a sprained PCL on Sunday, and he will spend the final two games on injured reserve. Coach Kyle Shanahan said Witherspoon will need to prove himself again at the beginning of his third season.
“We’ll look at all the tape and put it all together,” Shanahan said Monday. “Wish he could’ve finished these last two games. I think he definitely was finishing better than he started.
“But, his story is not written yet. He’s got to improve. Hopefully, he’ll come back here ready to go next year and take off the way he finished.”
Witherspoon had the additional challenge of playing opposite of veteran cornerback Richard Sherman this season. With opposing quarterbacks not wanting to risk throwing towards Sherman, they picked on Witherspoon’s side more regularly.
In 14 games this year, Witherspoon registered 37 total tackles, 30 of them solo. He totaled 32 tackles in his rookie season (28 solo) and two interceptions in 12 games.
Witherspoon will have his work cut out for him when he starts his third season. It looks as though he will be in competition with cornerback Tarvarius Moore.
Moore did a commendable job taking over when Witherspoon was injured midway through the first quarter of the 49ers' 26-23 win over the Seahawks. He finished the game with seven total tackles and two passes defended.
While all players, including Witherspoon, will need to prove themselves again, Shanahan saw improvement over his last several games.
“I thought he got a lot better in his coverage,” Shanahan said. “Just more consistent. Playing a little more physical in his coverage, too. I know he had some PI calls over the last month, ones that I wouldn’t want him to play differently. I thought he did a real good job on all those. I liked how he got more aggressive throughout the year.”
Prior to Witherspoon's injury, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh spoke about the challenge the cornerback faced after his rookie campaign -- as well as his recent mindset.
“He’s been gradually getting a lot better,” Saleh said last week, “and getting refocused and just understanding that in this league the three most dangerous words are ‘I got it.’ As soon as you think you’ve got it, you’ve lost it.
“So, he’s got great intent and he’s got the same mindset he had a year ago. When he plays with that mindset and builds into it, it’s a good lesson for everybody. You never have it in this league. Teams are always trying to find you. As soon as you let them find you, they’ll find you. He’s been good.”
While the staff sees the potential in Witherspoon, he will need to start next season where he left off: Aggressively, and with intent.