SANTA CLARA — Ahkello Witherspoon has come into his third NFL season locked in, looking like a completely different player than he was less than a year ago. Fellow 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman couldn’t be more proud.
Witherspoon was on a steep upward trajectory as he closed out his rookie season in 2017. Not only had he earned a starting position with the 49ers, but he also was now going to be playing across from and learning from Sherman, one of the most respected cornerbacks in the league.
Before the 2018 season, Sherman saw Witherspoon’s talent and believed in him enough to invite him to his ‘Cornerback Summit’ down the street from 49ers headquarters at Stanford. At Sherman’s alma mater, Witherspoon found himself working out with with the likes of All-Pro cornerbacks Darius Slay, Aqib Talib and Xavier Rhodes.
The media portrayed Witherspoon as having “arrived,” but things didn’t go exactly as planned.
Witherspoon’s sophomore season in 2018 did not live up to the expectations and hype. Quarterbacks tested him and won, as they avoided throwing towards Sherman’s side of the field. People outside of 49ers headquarters wondered if the attention was too much for the young cornerback from Colorado University.
Sherman’s belief, however, never waned and that has been the key to Witherspoon’s resurgence. The veteran cornerback spoke to NBC Sports Bay Area about what has changed for the third-year defensive back.
“Just his mentality, how he approaches things it’s how he deals with adversity,” Sherman said. “It’s been really cool to just see him evolve from last year to this year. He’s worked at it meticulously, he’s stayed detailed, he’s stayed locked in, when things weren’t going how he wanted them to, he made sure his mentality was always right and it’s lead to the success he’s had.”
It may seem like a small detail, but Witherspoon admits he's changed his approach. His most important adjustment? Having a short memory.
“I think it’s really just caring a little less,” Witherspoon told NBC Sports Bay Area. “It sounds kind of backwards but I used let a catch kind of weigh on me for three or four plays. Now if you got a catch, it doesn’t matter because I’m still the best corner on the field. If you give up a catch it just happens. It happens to the best people.”
Sherman can see a night-and-day difference in Witherspoon from 2018.
“It’s a lot different than last year,” Sherman said. “He didn’t respond as well to certain things that happened to him. He knew that, and he understood and worked to change that.”
The bond between the two cornerbacks is very evident at practice and in games. When Witherspoon makes a big play, like his pick-six in the season opener, he looks to Sherman immediately -- like a younger brother seeking out approval.
“I just feel like it’s kind of putting on a show,” Witherspoon explained. “When you have somebody that supports you that much, and you make a play, it’s kind of like you look to him like, ‘Man I’m out here doing it. There it is again.’
“So just seeing him, having that connection on the field, it’s inspirational going on to the next play.”
Sherman’s belief was exactly what Witherspoon needed to propel him into his third season. Sherman still gives the younger cornerback all the credit for being able to turn his approach to the game around.
“I believe in him and he believes in himself,” Sherman said. “But I think that sometimes you get into that spot where you feel that no one is in your corner and nobody is supporting you. I think I was one of the positive voices for him at a time where there weren’t a lot of positive voices outside of his family.”
Witherspoon’s soft-spoken demeanor remains the same, but now there’s an underlying confidence behind it. He almost seems to stand taller knowing how far he’s come, while recognizing that this is still the beginning of his journey.
“Last year I was learning as a player and learning as a man and I think this year you can see the growth.”