Colorado Buffaloes defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon, who just finished his senior season, recently completed participation in both the NFL Combine and his individual pro day at Colorado.
The Sacramento Community College transfer, who was often considered a late bloomer, said he really felt himself grow as a player and person during his time at Colorado. One of the main people he attributes his success to was head coach Mike MacIntyre.
“[It’s] more than just his knowledge of the NFL. He has the mindset and understanding of what it takes to be successful and effective at that level,” Witherspoon said of MacIntyre. “That’s one of the things that intrigued me, so no matter how hard he pushed me, or whatever he asked out of me, [it] was because he saw ultimately that final outcome for me.”
Under MacIntyre, Witherspoon earned All-Pac-12 honors and led all of college football with 22 pass breakups during the 2016 season.
While playing at Colorado, Witherspoon was part of a secondary that helped transform the team from being the laughingstock of the Pac-12 to a unit that made it to Pac-12 Championship game. He was part of many big moments for Colorado in its year of resurgence. One defining moment was his huge interception off of Oregon’s Dakota Prukop to seal the team’s first win over the Ducks in Eugene, Oregon, since 1967.
Witherspoon also played well in Colorado’s Pac-12 South-clinching game against Utah, recording four pass breakups. That helped secure the team’s Pac-12 championship appearance.
Although he got to experience arguably some of the greatest moments in Colorado football history, his personal favorite was his game-clinching interception against Oregon. He enjoyed how he got the opportunity to bail out teammate and NFL hopeful Tedric Thompson.
With Colorado leading Oregon 41-38, the Ducks had entered Buffaloes territory and were threatening with a 1st-and-10 from CU’s 34-yard line. Prukop attempted to pass to Charles Nelson, and Thompson jumped the route, but the ball bounced right off of him. He was unable to secure what would have been a sure interception.
“You had Tedric drop a pick a few plays before, and I was literally telling him I got him and had his back,” Witherspoon said about intercepting Prukop’s throw. “You don’t really know what that means in the moment, but to come up two plays after and make a play like that really speaks into existence.”
Playing in the Pac-12 was no cakewalk by any means for Witherspoon. He was constantly forced to go up against some of the best college football players in the nation. Two offensive players who stood out in particular, Washington wide receiver John Ross and Stanford tailback Christian McCaffrey, are projected by many draft gurus to be first-round picks.
When the Washington Huskies faced Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship game back on Dec. 2, Witherspoon helped limit the speed-burner, and new NFL Combine 40-yard-dash record holder, to four catches for 51 yards. Perhaps the most impressive part of Colorado’s defensive performance against Ross was how they limited his longest gain to 19 yards.
In fact, on that 19-yard play, a one-handed circus catch by Ross, he wasn’t even matched up against Witherspoon. In other words, the former Buff did even better than the stats may show.
By comparison, Ross, who has drawn comparison to NFL deep-ball sensation DeSean Jackson, torched other Pac-12 teams. Notably, against California, USC and Oregon State, he had deep balls that were 67-yards, 70-yards and 51-yards, respectively. The fact that Witherspoon was able to not only contain, but essentially take away the deep-ball threat from Ross is nothing short of remarkable. Witherspoon credited the high level of talent in the Pac-12 for prepping him on the field for the NFL’s level of play.
“That day-in, day-out preparation in practice knowing that you have to get better because people around the league are getting better everyday [has helped to prepare me],” he said. “That’s kind of what I want to take with me into the NFL. You’re never perfect, and you focus on your weaknesses and exploit those as much as you can so you can be comfortable beyond comfortable.”
In addition to facing some of the country’s top offenses, Witherspoon has inevitably drawn comparison to the many of the nation’s top cornerback prospects from a class that has been labeled one of the best college cornerback draft classes ever. Many come from the Pac-12 Conference, including Sidney Jones and Kevin King of Washington, Fabian Morea of UCLA, Adoree Jackson of USC and fellow Buff Chidobe Awuzie.
“It’s incredible just to be in the same conversation, but I have the most respect for all these guys and this defensive back class,” Witherspoon said. “We’re being called one of the best ever, so just to be to be a part of that, just to contribute to that is definitely a good feeling and I’m thankful for it.”
Barring a severe injury or poor combine performance, it is rare that a NFL prospect’s draft stock shoots down draft boards. Unfortunately, the 2017 NFL draft has been headlined by prospects at extremely deep positions suffering gruesome injuries that have hurt their stock. That’s also cost these prospective players millions of dollars; there is a sizable pay difference between rounds.
The first case of that occurred when Michigan tight end Jake Butt suffered a torn ACL during the Orange Bowl. Prior to the injury, Butt was projected to be a first round draft choice. With a strong tight-end class entering the draft this year, and draft stock rising for several at the position, most notably the Miami Hurricanes’ David Njoku, Butt’s stock has taken a hard hit.
In perhaps a more tragic fashion, Jones of Washington ruptured his Achilles on the final drill of his pro day. Jones was almost surely going to be a first round pick, and was even mocked to go as high as 14th in several post-combine mock drafts.
Seeing Jones injure himself in such a fashion — he was one of the guys that Witherspoon competed against at his respective position, and a fellow draft prospect from a school within the division — stung particularly hard.
“I was heartbroken,” Witherspoon said. “He’s one of the guys I’ve gotten to know pretty well, and we just respect each others’ game after the Washington game. We have mutual respect for each other. Watching that video, I was kind of like in a gut-wrenching silence just to see that sea of shock. I just had that feeling almost like I was right there with him.”
The ex-Buff’s powerful words couldn’t better depict the magnitude of the situation. At a position where there’s typically a need for someone to step in right away, and one with such a strong draft class, this injury could really end up being a rocky start to his career.
There’s no secret Jones is a guy with a lot of talent and potential. Only time can and will tell how this situation plays out.
No matter what sports writers may be saying in their mock draft about who the top cornerback in this year’s draft is, or about his weaknesses, Witherspoon feels like he has what it takes to be an elite cornerback at the next level and feels confident going forward.
“My combination of length, speed and agility; I think it’s top tier,” he said. “Period.”
At Colorado, he hopes he was able to leave a lasting impact and help lay the foundation for what’s to come for the football program that rose from the cellar last year. The team went from having the worst record in the Pac-12 South in 2016 to winning the South in 2017.
“Personally, I was able to make plays for my teammates and trust my teammates to do their jobs,” Witherspoon said. “That kind of trust is something we leave off to the younger guys too. You have responsibility for your own job.”
Hopefully Witherspoon’s message will be received and applied in full by the team’s younger talent. If junior defensive back Nick Fisher’s intercepting of sophomore quarterback Steven Montez on the first play of CU’s annual spring game is any hint of that, then Buffs fans should have much to anticipate and look forward to in regards to Colorado’s secondary in the near future.
Contact CU Independent Sports Staff Writer Jack Stern at firstname.lastname@example.org.