49ers CB Witherspoon on idol Richard Sherman: ’We understand each other on a different level’
Ahkello Witherspoon spent 2018 committing the cardinal sin for cornerbacks, according to his new position coach Joe Woods.
“He is a very, very smart football player,” Woods said after a spring practice Wednesday, “and sometimes he tried to do too much. Because you feel the pressure, ‘Hey, we’re not getting (interceptions). So, OK, I’m going to go try to make a play.’ And that’s the worst thing you can do as a (defensive back).”
Witherspoon’s struggles last season were emblematic of the entire 49ers defense. Like many of his teammates on that side of the ball, Witherspoon entered the season with big expectations while San Francisco was a trendy pick to contend for a playoff spot after the promising finish to 2017.
But Witherspoon regressed and the pass defense mostly struggled, leaving many to wonder why the 49ers didn’t take a more aggressive approach toward improving the secondary this offseason after setting an NFL record for the fewest interceptions in history with just two.
The front office and coaching staff determined giving more time for Witherspoon’s development is a better path than using an early draft pick or spending on a pricy free agent. Witherspoon, after all, is entering his third season after the team took him in the third round of the 2017 draft.
“The biggest thing I’m trying to instill in him is, man, trust your size, trust your athletic ability, your quickness,” said Woods. “You’re a gifted athlete. You don’t have to go to make plays. And that’s what I feel like he’s been doing so far this offseason. And he hasn’t been perfect, but I definitely think he’s moving in that direction, just to play within himself.”
Added defensive coordinator Robert Saleh: “Spoon is coming in with a renewed mindset and he’s looking like the person that we were having a lot of faith in after the first half his rookie year.”
Witherspoon was shuffled in and out of the lineup last season while the 49ers searched for the right combination in the secondary opposite former All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman. This spring, Witherspoon is back working with the starters during OTAs while free-agent addition Jason Verrett rehabs back from an Achilles tear suffered last summer. Once Verrett is healthy, his battle with Witherspoon could be one of the best position battles of training camp. Verrett was sprinting and doing conditioning on the sideline during Wednesday’s session.
In two practices open to reporters this spring, Witherspoon has been sharp, breaking up passes against the first-team offense and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo during seven-on-seven drills and in the red zone. The latest example came Wednesday when he beat receiver Kendrick Bourne to the spot on an inside route and forced an incompletion near the goal line.
“This league demands that you’re technical at all times or you’ll be exposed,” Witherspoon said. “That’s (Woods’) biggest focus, just give myself the best opportunity every play to be successful.”
Witherspoon harped on consistency when asked about his mindset heading into his most important season to date. This time last year, he was considered a sure-fire starter and wasn’t pushed by competition throughout the offseason program. There’s a feeling it led to complacency rather than Witherspoon practicing with the edge he needed in the ultra-competitive NFL.
“You never arrived in this league,” Witherspoon said. “Having a good rookie year, it’s time to take that to the next level and not regress. That’s just the focus this offseason.”
The 49ers were regularly shuffling the secondary throughout last year, starting eight different combinations at safety while regularly rotating at cornerback between Witherspoon, Jimmie Ward and Greg Mabin, to little success. Woods was brought in to become the new secondary coach and passing game coordinator. He replaced Jeff Hafley, who took a co-defensive coordinator job at Ohio State.
Woods spent the past two seasons as the Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator after previously working as the defensive backs coach. He joined Denver in 2015, the year they won the Super Bowl with one of the NFL’s best defenses, boasting a top-flight secondary with players such as Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Bradley Roby, T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart.
Woods’ message applies not only to Witherspoon, but to safety Adrian Colbert, who was thrust back into the starting lineup last week when starer Jimmie Ward fractured his collarbone. He’ll be on the shelf for eight to 12 weeks, which means Colbert is set to get the bulk of practice time until Ward returns at some point during training camp later this summer.
“Just trying to make plays where they weren’t yours,” Colbert said reflecting on 2018. “Our defense is an 11-man defense. You have to trust everybody that you’re playing with, from the D-line, to the linebackers to the secondary. If you’re not being able to trust the guy to your right or to your left, it’s going to be hard for you to make plays. And in this system, the plays are going to come to you as long as you’re doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Alexander time frame – Linebacker Kwon Alexander is tentatively expected to return, in some capacity, for training camp, Saleh said. Alexander hasn’t practiced while rehabbing a torn ACL suffered last October when he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Alexander signed a four-year, $54-million contract this spring. Elijah Lee, Malcolm Smith, Dre Greenlaw and David Mayo rotated at linebacker throughout Wednesday’s practice.
Moore move to safety – Second-year defensive back Tarvarius Moore will practice at safety for the foreseeable future, Saleh said. The move was made, in part, because of Ward’s injury. Moore converted from safety to cornerback after the 49ers drafted him in the third round in 2018.
Breida’s health improving – Running back Matt Breida is back to participating in individual drills after partially tearing a pectoral muscle this spring while lifting weights. The 49ers are light on running backs, which has led to them doing less full-team work during these OTAs. Only Tevin Coleman, Jeff Wilson Jr. and undrafted free agent Austin Walter have been cleared for 11-on-11 drills.
Notable absences – Injured players that didn’t participate Wednesday include: WR Jalen Hurd (knee), RB Jerick McKinnon (knee), RB Raheem Mostert (fractured arm), DB D.J. Reed (shoulder), DB Tim Harris (calf), LB Azeez Al-Shaair (knee), LB Fred Warner (LB), C Weston Richburg (knee, quad) and OL Erik Magnuson (undisclosed).