Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon’s sophomore season did not go as planned, but he is re-energized and refocused heading into his third year with the 49ers.
Witherspoon had a breakout finish to his rookie season in 2017 but playing opposite of Richard Sherman and being the focus of opposing quarterbacks posed a challenge in 2018. His play improved as the season progressed and he plans to take that momentum forward into 2019.
Prior to the six-week summer break, Witherspoon spoke to NBC Sports Bay Area about his goals as well as looking forward to an improved pass-rush.
“I’m very excited for the opportunity that’s at hand,” Witherspoon said. “You’re either going to rise to the occasion or fall. I’m very excited for that opportunity.”
Witherspoon explained what he wants to prove to himself as well as to his teammates and the fans. He’s been working on his technique, something he admits he lost focus on, relying primarily on his physical ability.
“Just that I can play the game at a high level consistently,” Witherspoon said. “It’s not about anybody else, it’s about getting the job done at a high level and doing it very often and that’s what I plan to do.”
Witherspoon will have the added assistance of an improved pass-rush with the additions of free agent Dee Ford and the No. 2 overall draft pick of the NFL Draft, Nick Bosa, on the line. He explained what a difference it will make for the secondary.
“It’s huge,” Witherspoon said. “It’s getting to the quarterback faster. It helps me do my job quicker, on a shorter clock. I don’t have to cover as long. And then some of the mistakes that we do make, get covered by them so that will be big.”
Witherspoon has played without the benefit of an elite pass rush throughout his football career, including his time in college at Colorado.
“We don’t really know what it’s going to feel like,” Witherspoon said. “I’ve never had that in my football career. One of our challenges, as I’ve played, has kind of been the d-line. It hasn’t been incredible, so that’s what we’re looking forward to, that special group that we have this year.”
During OTAs and mandatory mini-camp, players don't wear pads and there is no tackling allowed. Witherspoon still sees the difference that those key pieces have caused when watching practices in the film room.
“You don’t feel it in practice because they’re allowed to take their time, because we’re not taking quarterback’s necks off, but you see it on tape,” Witherspoon said. “When there’s a ball that’s caught, and coach says he wouldn’t have gotten that off, it kind of lets you know that the game is going to be played at a higher tempo.”
All of this has Witherspoon excited for the season ahead. He’s has seen the pressure that the front seven has been starting to impose and is ready to get the pads on.
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“Those guys are working, getting around the ball, even the bang-bang ones,” Witherspoon said. “It’s all about really affecting the quarterback. If you can rattle the quarterback a few times, he’s going to know and he’s going to make those decisions. Even if they are getting the ball off and they’re not there, it’s still good to have their head hit the grass a few times.
“That’s what you go out there to do, make plays, be on the ball, force them to make quick throws and be there. I’m very excited to see that come into action.”