Ahkello Witherspoon's first NFL training camp was relatively mundane. There was some good. There were also some growing pains. Such ups and downs were expected by the San Francisco 49ers rookie cornerback.
Reuben Foster's flurry of early interceptions occupied most of the spotlight. That was just fine with Witherspoon. The soft-spoken rookie just put his head down and focused on his craft.
"It's gone great – a lot of learning opportunities," Witherspoon said. "I came in with the focus of getting better. I've gotten incredibly better the last three or four weeks.
"I didn't really come in expecting much. That's not my style. I'm just here to embrace this experience, and it's been a good one."
Witherspoon's first benchmark moment came during the second week of camp. The corner intercepted Matt Barkley down the right sideline, making an over-the-shoulder grab to secure the interception. Even for an even-keel guy like Witherspoon, the play still allowed him to exhale a bit.
"It was great to get my first one," Witherspoon said. "It was a confidence thing to get my hands on the ball finally."
The third-round pick out of Colorado has been quietly impressive through two preseason games. Only Lorenzo Jerome (70) has played more defensive snaps than Witherspoon (67). According to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, Witherspoon has been targeted just once in 37 coverage snaps. A solitary 14-yard completion is all that the rookie has allowed in the passing game.
But pass coverage is the easy part, according to Witherspoon. The corner was lauded for his foot speed and quickness coming out of college. It's Witherspoon's physicality, or lack there of, that caught the attention of his critics.
That's been his focus during the preseason. Witherspoon is relying more on his instincts and thinking less during each play. That has allowed him to make more decisive plays against the run. Witherspoon recalled one running play where he ducked under an offensive lineman and made a play on the ball-carrier. He discussed another where he made a tackle on a screen pass.
Those are signs of progress, and he's been getting positive reinforcement from defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley.
"I've been trained so that good or bad, you just keep working," Witherspoon said. "My position allows that. You always have to prepare for the next snap. You have to stay neutral.
"My personality helps that process. I don't sweat much. I care about the game, and I care about making plays. But if I don't make a play, I just focus on fixing it."
Witherspoon isn't one to puff his chest or let out a war cry, but he warns not to mistake that subdued demeanor for a lack of faith in his own ability.
"I'm very confident, extremely," Witherspoon said.
Dontae Johnson has been running with the first-team defense opposite Rashard Robinson. Keith Reaser is likely next in line with Witherspoon behind him. Nothing has been decided though. That's what Hafley continues to stress to every cornerback on the team.
It's a never-ending competition which means that a starting role is never out of the question for Witherspoon.
"I'm preparing like I'm a Day 1 starter," the corner explained. "That's my mindset. That's my long term goal in this league. I've just got to keep working and keep pushing forward."