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.”
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.”