Ahkello Witherspoon didn’t evoke the image of an athlete as a freshman in high school.
He was 5-foot and barely 100 pounds. He could turn sideways and disappear. The family dog was bigger and stronger.
But Witherspoon kept his face inside the refrigerator, eating anything he could find, and kept growing. He was sturdy enough at 5-8 to play four sports as a senior at Christian Brothers, graduating with a 4.4 grade-point average.
And then he grew some more.
By the middle of his freshman season at Sacramento City College in 2013 – his second season of tackle football – Witherspoon had grown seven inches in 16 months to 6-3 (and 190 pounds). His development and raw skills as a defensive back led Colorado to offer a scholarship after one semester at Sac City.
Witherspoon has been a mainstay for the Buffaloes ever since.
He had an end-zone interception with 48 seconds left to seal a 41-38 victory over Oregon in Eugene on Sept. 24, the first milestone victory for coach Mike MacIntyre, whose surging Buffs are 4-1. Witherspoon was the Buffs’ hero of the hour, mobbed by teammates and coaches, a late bloomer suddenly setting a pace.
He’s also setting a pace in the classroom with perfect grades as a pre-med student, majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology. And Witherspoon dabbles in singing with a preference for rhythm and blues (his grandfather Jimmy Witherspoon was a blues artist whose hit “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” was No. 1 on the R&B chart in 1949).
While coaching at San Jose State, MacIntyre saw Witherspoon play at CBS and was amazed at his growth when he saw him a year later at Sac City.
Witherspoon’s father, Lucky, was a late bloomer himself. He played running back at Sac City in the 1980s and at Nevada on scholarship. People who hadn’t seen his son in years did a double take.
At his height and speed, Witherspoon has made receivers work for every inch of open space. Only two passes were caught against the senior in the first four games this season. He had five pass breakups in the first three games, tied for second-most of any FBS defender in the country. In pass defense, Colorado is ranked first in the Pacific-12 Conference and ninth nationally, allowing 150.4 yards a game entering Saturday’s game at USC.
“Insane production,” Lucky said excitedly of his son. Said the son, “I’m still learning the sport.”
Witherspoon played in 13 games as a junior with eight starts, posting seven third-down stops and two touchdown saves.
“His biggest thing is that he’s been consistent,” Colorado cornerbacks coach Charles Clark told the Denver Post. “A lot of times, that just comes with game experience. He’s played a lot of games being here for two years now. He’s had a lot of bad plays along with the good ones over the years, and now I think he’s just being more consistent and coming to work each day.”
Said MacIntyre, “He’s always had excellent athletic ability and done a lot of excellent things. He’s just gotten better at his trade is the best way to explain it.
“He’s more focused. He’s matured like our whole football team.”