In January, the 49ers hired former Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Woods as defensive backs coach/passing game coordinator.
Now Woods could prove to be one of the team’s biggest offseason additions if he can get cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon back on track.
Witherspoon, who had a strong rookie season in 2017, took a step back in 2018. Injury was one part of the equation, but Witherspoon often simply didn’t execute the way he did as a rookie. The analytic website Pro Football Focus graded him dead last among 112 NFL cornerbacks (who played enough to qualify for the ratings) and noted that Witherspoon was responsible for seven accepted penalties in 2018, a team high.
In 2017, Witherspoon started nine games, had two interceptions, seven passes defensed and 32 tackles. In 2018, he started 12 games, had zero picks, four passes defensed and 37 tackles.
Now Woods is hoping to coach Witherspoon back up to being a solid starting corner opposite Richard Sherman, and believes he’s on track. Woods told Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee this week, during organized team activities (OTAs), that Woods got into bad habits last season, trying to gamble and make plays – particularly interceptions – and he put himself in bad positions.
“That’s the worst thing you can do,” Woods told Biderman.
“The biggest thing I’m trying to instill in him is, man, trust your size, trust your athletic ability, your quickness,” Woods added. “You’re a gifted athlete.”
From what Woods has seen in OTAs and in recent weeks, Witherspoon is playing better. And Biderman noted Witherspoon has been sharp in OTAs, consistently making plays against the first-team offense.
Witherspoon says he’s focusing on fundamentals and playing with control and confidence.
“This league demands that you’re technical at all times or you’ll be exposed,” said Witherspoon. “That’s (Woods’) biggest focus, just to give myself the opportunity every play to be successful.”
Last season, Witherspoon acknowledged he struggled, but said he was appreciative of the chance to learn from his mistakes. He said he had faith it was all a part of the process of growing and getting better.
“It’s all in God’s plan and I’m on His path and I’m doing it firmly and as a believer,” he said in November. “So, I have no complaints.”
Now, he’ll get a chance under Woods to get back on track.