SANTA CLARA – Rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon did not win the right to suit up for the 49ers' first four games. Behind the scenes, he made it his mission to earn a contributing role.
"He really started to get better with his coordination with his feet from the bump-and-run coverage and from playing ‘off.' There's always a light that goes on," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "And we felt that for a couple weeks from Ahkello. Once he did that, he definitely earned the right to be out there."
The plan was for Witherspoon to rotate into the action and share time with starters Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson. But he played just six snaps on Oct. 8 against Indianapolis before sustaining a concussion. Witherspoon returned to action last week and played 34 of the 49ers' 74 snaps last week at Washington. He showed enough to coninue getting significant playing time.
"He's earned the right to play," 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. "He works his tail off in practice. He's so deliberate in his approach. Whether it was scout team, whether it was team reps, whether it was walk-through, it didn't matter."
Witherspoon, the 49ers' third-round draft pick at No. 66 overall, had a pedestrian training camp. Taking his lumps in August showed him what he needed to do to get into real games in October.
"I really turned up my focus, my intent every day in practice," Witherspoon said. "What I did in camp wasn't good enough to be a starting corner in this league, and that's what I learned.
"I really focused on being aware of what it takes. That's something I implemented these last four weeks -- that every day focus and competing on every single ball, and taking the mindset that no ball's caught on me. I think that's really helped my game, and helped these coaches trust me, as well."
Witherspoon expected Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins to attack him. But of the 25 plays he was in coverage last week, Witherspoon saw only three passes come his way. He surrendered two receptions for 33 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
"Just being a rookie, I thought it was going to come, where they were going to be taking that one shot," Witherspoon said. "I kept waiting for it to happen, but it didn't happen. Going up against a smart quarterback, I know he saw me out there.
"There were a few times he looked my way in coverage. I wasn't perfect in coverage, but I think he was looking. And I thought I did a good job."
Witherspoon (6 foot 3, 195 pounds) is comfortable lining up on either side of the field, which he did during his college career at Colorado. He said he has not put on much weight but he has added more muscle, which has allowed him a better chance to compete physically against bigger NFL receivers.
Witherspoon fully expects to be challenged on Sunday when he is expected to see considerable playing time against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium. Witherspoon figures Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott will be paying particularly close attention any time Dez Bryant lines up on his side of the field.
"They're going to be looking at the ‘rook,' " Witherspoon said.
Said Shanahan, "They're going to try to do that with all our DBs, so I don't think it even matters who's out there. They're going to attack when we're in single safety, which we are the majority of the time. They're going to go outside and keep going out there until you stop them."
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Watch Kyle Shanahan's full sit-down interview with Matt Maiocco on "49ers Game Plan," which is scheduled to air Saturday at 9 p.m. on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3).