Two years ago, Ahkello Witherspoon had a terrific rookie season.
Witherspoon started nine games at cornerback, had two interceptions and seven passes defensed, and the 49ers believed they’d found a potential star in the 6-foot-2 defensive back.
But in 2018, injuries and a sophomore slump hit hard, and the 49ers wondered if Witherspoon’s rookie success had been a mirage.
But this summer, Witherspoon showed well throughout training camp and the exhibition season, and he won a starting cornerback spot opposite Richard Sherman while fighting off a challenge from free-agent pickup Jason Verrett, the former Charger.
Witherspoon carried that momentum into Sunday’s regular-season opener, helping the 49ers to a 31-17 victory over the Bucs in Tampa. He had an interception return for a touchdown, three pass deflections and was in on two tackles and helped stifle Pro Bowl wideout Mike Evans, who caught just two balls all game.
The analytic website Pro Football Focus noted Witherspoon had the top grade on the 49ers defense against Tampa Bay and allowed just two catches on six targets for just 21 yards. His passer rating when targeted was just 4.9.
"He’s going to be a great player in this league for a long time," Sherman told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. "And I’m just so proud of him today and the way he battled and the way he showed up."
Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan said he was impressed during the game by Witherspoon’s play, but was further impressed after watching film.
"I thought he had a hell of a game, got a chance to break up some balls," Shanahan told reporters. Shanahan said he believed Witherspoon was much more physical on running plays, too, and "just played out there with a lot more confidence."
Witherspoon and the 1-0 49ers will travel to Cincinnati this week to take on the Bengals Sunday, with kickoff set for 10 a.m. The Bengals lost their opener to the Seahawks, 21-20.