49ers

49ers' Richard Sherman not surprised by Ahkello Witherspoon's resurgence

49ers' Richard Sherman not surprised by Ahkello Witherspoon's resurgence

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.” 

[RELATED: 49ers rookie Samuel doesn't need many snaps for big stats]

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.” 

Deebo Samuel's insane catch in 49ers' win had Nate Burleson going nuts

Deebo Samuel's insane catch in 49ers' win had Nate Burleson going nuts

If 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel's incredible circus catch against the Cardinals on Sunday caused you to go crazy, you're not the only one.

Former NFL wide receiver and current NFL Network analyst Nate Burleson highlighted the catch in this week's edition of "Toe Drag Swag," and to say that 11-year veteran was impressed with the rookie was an understatement.

"Now this one is nasty," Burleson said. "Deebo Samuel. Don't forget about him. He goes up and gets this. It bounces off of the back pad, bounces off the helmet of [Patrick] Peterson and then he tracks the ball. Deebo Samuel is snatching footballs like the real Deebo in 'Friday' was snatching chains.

"But how 'bout that concentration, though? You're trying to catch it over the back of one of the best corners in the business. It bounces off his back, it bounces off his head and then you still have the awareness to get your feet down before you go out of bounds."

In case you need a refresher, here are a few slo-mo replays.

Burleson went on to shower the 2019 second-round pick with praise.

"Deebo Samuel, for a young player who is transitioning from position to position, has stepped up and is one the best targets that Jimmy Garoppolo has on this offense," Burleson said. "Look at this play again. Keeping his eyes on the ball the whole time, in between two defenders, and still gets his feet down for one of the best catches in the business."

[RELATED: Samuel makes history vs. Cardinals]

After catching 22 passes for 227 yards over the first seven games he played in this season, Samuel has broken out with 16 receptions for 246 yards combined the last two weeks. Garoppolo targeted the rookie wide receiver a total of 21 times against the Seahawks and Cardinals.

Samuel is starting to make a believer out of everyone, including Burleson.

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Why 49ers' Jeff Wilson enjoyed celebrating game-winning TD vs. Cardinals

Why 49ers' Jeff Wilson enjoyed celebrating game-winning TD vs. Cardinals

Jeff Wilson has done a lot with a little bit of playing time this season.

The 49ers running back has scored five touchdowns in seven games in 2019, finding the end zone on 10 percent of the offensive snaps in which he has lined up. His latest TD was the winning one in San Francisco's 36-26 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at Levi's Stadium.

It came on Wilson's lone offensive snap of the day, and he celebrated appropriately.

"It was just like all the pain I ever felt, all the mistakes I ever made, all the good times I ever had, just all that came out and went," Wilson told KNBR's "Papa & Lund" show Tuesday (H/T 49ers Webzone). "This game meant a lot to me. Obviously, just not playing the whole game, just to get one play, and then the play, you get in and score, and it's for a big moment for the game, it was just all so surreal to me."

[RELATED: How Packers, 49ers gave LaFleur bros 'win-win' situation]

The 49ers got by with a little help from their depth in Week 11, as backup tight end Ross Dwelley hauled in a pair of touchdowns in place of George Kittle and rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel played on more offensive snaps than anyone else at a skill position. Kittle and running back Matt Breida returning likely would push Dwelley and Wilson, respectively, down the depth chart for San Francisco's Sunday night matchup with the 8-2 Green Bay Packers.

If Wilson manages to get another scoring opportunity, the 49ers know they can trust him to deliver in a big moment and be ready to celebrate.