Week 8 was a day of firsts for the San Francisco 49ers rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon – first NFL start and his first career interception.
Witherspoon's performance against the Philadelphia Eagles earned him a spot on Pro Football Focus’ Team of the Week, where Witherspoon allowed just three catches on eight passes thrown his way and a third-quarter interception that led to a 49ers touchdown.
In addition to his encouraging Week 8 numbers, Witherspoon instilled confidence in the 49ers coaching staff leading the team to move on from their No. 1 corner, Rashard Robinson.
Witherspoon spent the first four weeks of the season as Robinson's understudy. Inactive a quarter through the season, Witherspoon spent that time refining his skills to compete at the NFL level.
"I used those four weeks as another minicamp. I'm serious," Witherspoon said. "I think I played better those four weeks than I did throughout training camp coming in to the season. Those four weeks, the conversations that I had with (defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley) were just focused on getting better."
In his first NFL start, Witherspoon earned the third-highest grade of any Week 8 cornerback (88.1), the best of his young career, and the best performance of any member of the 49ers secondary so far this season.
Witherspoon has shown signs of progress. In his four appearances this season, the rookie has totaled eight tackles and a pick to add to his rookie year stats.
Despite missing a months' worth of play, Witherspoon worked on his craft so when his number was called, he'd be ready.
"The mental approach to my game wasn't there in August," Witherspoon said. "Understanding the route concept on third and long, preparing for a dig to come and actually come, that's something I wasn't aware of when I came in."
Whether studying his predecessors or taking full advantage of each mental rep, Witherspoon's preparation has continued to mold him on the field. His efforts midway through the season have noticeably earned the trust and respect of his defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
"The deliberateness at which he practiced, you could say it all the way across the board, but he completely took to the idea that every rep is a championship rep and that preparing yourself doesn't just happen," Saleh said. "You don't play well on Sunday just because you showed up. You play well on Sunday because you took every rep possible."
Witherspoon understands there's plenty room for growth in his game. He references being challenged on a 53-yard touchdown pass to Eagles star receiver Alshon Jeffrey the following series. With little time to relish on his interception, Witherspoon took his slight miscue as an early lesson.
"I could have intercepted it," Witherspoon said. "I kind of second-guessed myself. And once you do that, you lose at the corner position, as we saw. …It's just another learning experience."
The young corner will endure growing pains as he continues to work up to the speed of the NFL. It's a learning process as Witherspoon continues to make strides over the final eight weeks of the season. Taking the role as a starter in the 49ers secondary, Witherspoon will have an opportunity to step up to the task on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals fifth-ranked passing offense.
"I really think he's got a great amount of potential. It's just a matter of whether or not he keeps that same mindset of growth. When you've got someone who's internally driven like that you just admire and watch," Saleh added. "You could see his evolution mentally as well as physically. He hasn't even scratched the surface either."