SANTA CLARA -- 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon said he felt the absence of the man he is directly competing with in training camp.
Jason Verrett did not practice Thursday after injuring his ankle in Wednesday’s practice. Coach Kyle Shanahan said the team feared Verrett’s injury would be more significant, but they hope he will be ready for the start of the regular season.
The 49ers signed Verrett to a one-year deal this offseason, and he was competing with Witherspoon for the starting cornerback spot alongside Richard Sherman.
"The dude's very talented,” Witherspoon said of Verrett on Thursday. “Period. [He’s p]hysically gifted. He's very focused. He loves to play football, and a guy like that, you just love to have in the room, you love to compete with straight-up. It's just unfortunate what happened to him, but we'll have him back and he'll be a big part of our team."
Witherspoon’s up-and-down second NFL season ended two games early after he sprained his PCL in Week 15 against the Seattle Seahawks. He showed signs of improvement before the injury, and Shanahan said at the end of the season that the team hoped that would continue during the offseason program.
The 24-year-old arguably was the 49ers’ best defensive player during OTAs, which Verrett was held out of. Verrett, 28, tore his Achilles on the first day of training camp with the Los Angeles Chargers last year, and has dealt with myriad of injuries throughout his career. The 2015 Pro Bowler has played in only 25 NFL games, and just five since the start of the 2016 season.
“You feel for a guy, just the injuries he's been through,” Witherspoon said. “Definitely a big relief that it's not nothing longer. And then in the same respect, you just feel bad for anything -- even a day off -- for a guy that loves to play the game like he does, it's tough to see.”
In the meantime, Witherspoon will continue to get reps with the 49ers’ No. 1 defensive unit as he did Thursday. Witherspoon returned to practice Tuesday after dealing with glute tightness during the first week of training camp, and he said he feels “great” now. At one point during 11-on-11 drills, Witherspoon blanketed receiver Dante Pettis and forced an incompletion, turning to the referee in hopes of drawing an offensive pass-interference penalty.
Witherspoon said he wasn’t sure how much he would play in Saturday’s preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium. In Verrett’s absence, he likely will line up with the first-team defense when the 49ers hold joint practices with the Denver Broncos next week and during the team’s “dress rehearsal” in the third preseason game against the high-octane Kansas City Chiefs.
Provided he stays healthy, Witherspoon is in line for a lot of reps through the remainder of training camp and the preseason. Still, Shanahan said “there will be some good competition” when Verrett is able to return.
“He’s one that we can be more patient with,” Shanahan said of Verrett. “We know the football player he is, we’ve seen the guy since he’s been here. He’s as good of a guy and as good of a competitor as I’ve been around. We’ve got ultimate trust in him, it’s just about him getting his body right.”