Mike Evans

How 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon impressed Bucs' Mike Evans

How 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon impressed Bucs' Mike Evans

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon impressed Bucs All-Pro wide receiver Mike Evans so much Sunday that the two swapped jerseys after the game.

Late in the fourth quarter of the 49ers' 31-17 win, Witherspoon picked off quarterback Jameis Winston's pass and returned it for a touchdown. It was Witherspoon's first interception in a live game since a spring game while he was at University of Colorado.

Witherspoon chuckled as he recounted the play.  

“My only other one in my career was actually in a spring game,” Witherspoon said. “I got in trouble for holding the ball out by my head coach. So it’s kind of funny, when I got it, I had the ball out and I was thinking how terrible my ball security was. But I guess that’s just my immediate reaction. 

“I was so hyped I couldn’t even really think. It was just like get in the end zone and go crazy.” 

In that flash of a second, Witherspoon did have a moment of panic as a Bucs player closed in on him.

“That’s when I tucked it away at the end one more time," Witherspoon said. "Like, let me get in the end zone before I get in trouble by my college coach again.” 

That play and several others impressed Evans enough to not only swap jerseys with Witherspoon, but to also ask a question that surprised the third-year cornerback. 

“He just told me I did a really good job, honestly,” Witherspoon said. “He was asking me -- I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this -- but he was asking me if we knew the offense. I was like, ‘No, we’re just out here playing ball, my man, but thanks for the compliment.’ 

“Yeah, it was crazy. I was like ‘No, not at all, but can you sign that for me?’” 

Players never use illness or injuries as an excuse, but Evans was battling the flu the week prior to Sunday’s matchup. Witherspoon said he didn’t see much difference in Evans’ play but noted that the heat and humidity was tough on everyone. 

“He told me one play that he was tired,” Witherspoon said. “But once again, that made be ball up even more because I’m not going to let off the gas. But I definitely saw him, he gives a little more effort on the back side like run blocks and he was just less active. I think just trying to conserve, but it was tiring for anyone, sick or healthy out there.

"It was probably tough for him.” 

[RELATED: How 49ers made impact on Youngstown community on off day]

Playing against someone to Evans' caliber for the second season in a row motivated Witherspoon. 

Having history with the imposing 6-foot-5, 231-pounder helped, too.

“Last year he said something to me after the game, he liked how I played,” Witherspoon said. “This year I was coming in with the mentality to dominate him and then take his jersey. Love to compete against a guy like that.” 

49ers' Richard Sherman called for pass interference after review vs. Bucs

49ers' Richard Sherman called for pass interference after review vs. Bucs

Well, that didn't take long.

No, the 49ers didn't score.

On the Bucs' second possession, Jameis Winston lofted a pass intended for Mike Evans who was blanketed by Richard Sherman. The pass fell incomplete, but Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians elected to challenge the play for pass interference on Richard Sherman. Upon review, it was determined that Sherman grabbed Evans' jersey and the penalty was awarded. 

It's certainly a new wrinkle to the game.

[RELATED: These five games could determine if 49ers makes playoffs]

Given the fact that Sherman has been critical of the rule change, he certainly won't be happy that he's one of the first to get called for PI on review.

49ers' Ahkello Witherspoon braces for big test in Buccaneers' Mike Evans

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USATSI

49ers' Ahkello Witherspoon braces for big test in Buccaneers' Mike Evans

SANTA CLARA -- Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was completely unchallenged for a starting role heading into last season.

But after an up-and-down second year in the NFL, Witherspoon had competition this offseason after the 49ers signed veteran Jason Verrett to a one-year contract. Witherspoon believes the arrival of a talented veteran helped him take his game to another level this summer. Witherspoon said he worked on one area to improve every day, and feels it all came together to enable him to be a more well-rounded player.

“It brought competition into the building,” Witherspoon said of Verrett. “I think with competition, you’re either going to rise or fall. If you’re given the starting job, you’re competing against yourself and trying to get better. Now, you have actual tangible person who’s trying to take your job.

“It’s not very gray. It’s black and white, and I like operating like that. I don’t like the in-between or trying to manufacture anything. I think he’s a helluva player. And at the same time, I think I’m a helluva player. And it improves that mindset. You got to go out and compete every day.”

Witherspoon and Verrett were in daily competition until Aug. 7, when Verrett went down with an ankle injury. Verrett returned to practice on Monday and could be available when the 49ers open the regular season on Sunday at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But there is little doubt that Witherspoon showed enough during the course of training camp to enter the season as the starter opposite of Richard Sherman.

“I’m excited to go out and put it on tape on a real Sunday,” Witherspoon said. “I’m really for that feeling again.”

[RELATED: Who's starting? The 49ers release their Week 1 depth chart]

Witherspoon probably will not have to wait too long to get challenged. He will see a lot of Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans, who has registered 1,000-yard seasons in each of his five years in the NFL.

Evans (6-foot-5, 231 pounds) had 86 receptions for 1,524 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He had six catches for 116 yards in Tampa Bay’s 27-9 victory over the 49ers in Week 12.

“With a bigger-bodied guy like that, you just have to put the ball in his area and he has that go-get-it mentality,” Witherspoon said. “That’s something that makes him special. He’s kind of like that DeAndre Hopkins style, where he’s not going to get a step on you, but even if you’re in perfect coverage he can still make a play. That’s where I see his biggest plays come.”

Witherspoon (6-2, 195) also has good size, but one area in which he must improve is his physicality. He knows he will be faced with one of his bigger tests of the season in Week 1.

Said Witherspoon: “That’s the key -- just not being afraid of a bigger guy, and going up and challenging him early and often.”