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Ahkello Witherspoon Has Transformed from a 'Scrawny Corner' into a 'Grown Man'

We're almost a full year removed from last summer's most buzz-worthy moment. I'm sure you remember reading about it – when Carlos Hyde plowed through Ahkello Witherspoon at the goal line to score a training camp touchdown.

It wasn't a "live" period, meaning the rookie corner wasn't supposed to tackle Hyde. Witherspoon was merely tasked with wrapping up the San Francisco 49ers starting running back. Hyde, as has become his trademark, opted for more contact and lowered a shoulder through Witherspoon's sternum. Hoopla ensued and many stories and tweets were published to document the encounter.

Witherspoon's critics had all they needed to confirm what they already perceived as fact – that he was contact averse and incapable of being a reliable tackler.

"When he got here, he was this little, scrawny corner that everyone said wouldn't hit anybody," Robert Saleh acknowledged the knocks against Witherspoon coming out of Colorado.

But the corner flourished by season's end, finishing his rookie year as a starter on San Francisco's defense with his first two career interceptions to his name. Saleh sees a player who has made a complete transformation following a full year of work with the team's strength and conditioning staff.

Witherspoon's beanpole arms are now chiseled as the 23-year-old continues to fill out his frame.

"He's turned into a man," Saleh said proudly. "If you look at him, he has great presence out on the football field. He's a grown man. He'll hit people. I couldn't be more pleased."

But as is the theme of San Francisco's training camp, Witherspoon has plenty of work left to do. Saleh explained that Witherspoon, along with the rest of the 49ers second-year players, are still considered rookies until Week 4 of this season. The thought process is to keep any player from feeling like he's "arrived."

"There are a lot of young players on our team that have a lot of potential, but potential doesn't mean anything unless you act on it," Saleh said. "That comes with being deliberate in everything that they do."

Every indication is that Witherspoon is taking the right approach. He holds himself to a high standard – a bar that has only risen with the offseason acquisition of Richard Sherman.

View the top images from the first practice of 2018 training camp presented by SAP.

"He's trying to get to a place, a place of greatness," Saleh said. "He's got a mindset that I wouldn't bet against him."

It's important to keep in mind that while Witherspoon had his doubters, he's not an underdog story altogether. The 49ers were keen on the corner throughout the pre-draft process and selected him in the third round (66th overall) of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Everyone from John Lynch to defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley raved about Witherspoon's footwork coming out of college. The size was there (6-foot-2 and 33-inch arms). So, too was the technique. The powers at be knew Witherspoon's physicality would soon follow.

"They all saw it," Saleh said. "They wouldn't have drafted him if they didn't. There's a lot of studying that went into Ahkello. When you use a third-round pick on somebody, you have great confidence, obviously. We never had a doubt."

Witherspoon's confidence is evident when you watch him at practice. He's constantly bobbing to the music while carrying himself like an alpha. It's an understated bravado that let's everyone know he belongs on this stage without having to say it directly.

He realized he was a capable NFL corner when he intercepted Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. Witherspoon added another pick against Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles. His belief in himself hasn't wavered since. Now he's eager to do it all over again.

"I just feel ready, and I'm excited to put it on film," Witherspoon said. "I want to show people what it takes and what a whole year can do for me."