Ahkello Witherspoon said he’d never try to tackle someone as powerful as running back Carlos Hyde or as big as tight end Vance McDonald up around the chest in a game.
The 49ers’ tall, lanky rookie cornerback attempted that maneuver twice last week in training camp with the same humbling result: Witherspoon was left lying flat on his back in the end zone while his offensive teammates celebrated touchdowns.
Witherspoon, however, said Monday the preferred method of attack in those scenarios – hitting the ball carrier around the ankles and upending him – is off limits for now because players are trying to protect their teammates.
“Not in practice, no way,” he said.
Witherspoon, a Christian Brothers High School graduate, may seem like the camp punching bag because he’s been on the wrong end of so many offensive highlights. But he’s also gotten credit for popping to his feet after each big hit and for his willingness to, as he says, “stick his nose in there,” even in no-win situations like the one he found himself in when the 228-pound Hyde was barreling at him from five yards out.
“For me, it’s just getting the impact, getting the ‘thud,’ getting used to it,” he said. “Putting yourself in there is the first step. And then come game time it’ll be easier when I go for a little bit different technique.”
Through the first week and a half of training camp, Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson have received most of the first-team snaps at cornerback. Johnson has looked particularly strong in recent practices and intercepted Brian Hoyer – rare in 49ers training camp so far – during Monday’s session.
Witherspoon mostly has played right cornerback with the second-team unit, usually opposite Keith Reaser.
The 49ers used a third-round pick on Witherspoon because of his size (6-3, 205 pounds) and footwork, which he sharpened playing soccer. Like most of the team’s cornerbacks, he must learn to use his hands more aggressively to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage.
“He’s got such great feet, and they can have contact way up the field (in college),” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “But in the NFL it happens quicker. So they just have to use their hands quicker at the line of scrimmage.”
Et cetera – Guard Joshua Garnett was on the sideline Monday with his left knee in a plastic sleeve. The former first-round draft pick is awaiting further tests on the knee, and the 49ers hope he will be back in about a month. Zane Beadles and Daniel Kilgore filled in at left guard Monday.
▪ A number of 49ers who had been out with injuries, including defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (ankle) and tight end George Kittle (hamstring), returned to practice Monday following a day off.
▪ Saleh said he expects Jaquiski Tartt (ribs) to return to practice this week. He said he hasn’t decided whether Tartt will play in Friday’s preseason opener at Kansas City.