John Lynch was the type of safety who put ball carriers on their backs, whose hits snapped chinstraps, who made receivers crossing the middle of the field hear phantom footsteps.
Running back Ricky Watters’ infamous short-armed catch attempt in 1995 when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles – which led to his even more dubious “For who? For what?” quote – came with Lynch and another Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back bearing down on him.
So when Lynch watched Ahkello Witherspoon in run defense and tackling at Colorado, the 49ers general manager didn’t like what he saw. And he told Witherspoon exactly that when the cornerback visited the 49ers facility last month.
“It’s something that we raised to him and we didn’t hide from it,” Lynch said of the rookie’s tackling style. “I said … that bothers me, help me out here.”
Witherspoon’s response: It will get better.
The 49ers drafted the Sacramento native in the third round last week for his pass-protection skills and for his potential. Witherspoon has quick feet from having been a standout soccer player, has long arms to knock away passes and was a fast learner after only taking up football seriously as a senior at Christian Brothers High School.
The physical aspects of the game have been slower to coalesce, Witherspoon said.
“It’s just something I have to be more consistent with,” he said Thursday when he and the rest of the 49ers’ 10-man draft class arrived for a three-day minicamp.
“Every team I spoke to said they’ve seen it in (spurts) in my game, and to just bring it all the time,” he continued. “I think just playing the game, it’s going to continue to come. I think it’s just experience and being exposed to new situations. It will continue to be a more effective part of my game.”
That’s what reassured Lynch as well. Overall, Witherspoon’s tackling and hitting was poor. But there were instances when he used his fast feet and big frame to his advantage, like on a goal-line play in which he zoomed in from the end zone to knock an opposing runner out of bounds last season.
Lynch showed Witherspoon those examples when he visited Santa Clara last month.
“He pulled up clips of me doing it well and doing it poorly,” Witherspoon said. “And he told me, ‘This is what’s kind of encouraging to me. It not a fear thing. You’re willing to do it.’ ”
Lynch said he got a similar report from Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre. Witherspoon was the type of person who wills himself to succeed in everything he does, MacIntyre said. For example, Witherspoon aspires to be a surgeon when his NFL career is over, and he said no amount of NFL success or riches will keep him from his goal.
“Med school is happening, there’s no doubt,” he said. “Whether it’s in a year or 12 (years), I can’t say. It’s my passion. I’ve always been interested in how things work. And I think the body is a great place to jump into, to figure it out.”
Lynch said he thought Witherspoon would take the same type of goal-oriented approach when it comes to tackling. And with rough-and-tumble players like NaVorro Bowman, Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster in the 49ers locker room, Witherspoon will have no option but to get better.
“I always believe when you put people in a room that are exhibiting the way we want to play, the other guys have no choice if they want to be on the field,” Lynch said.