BOULDER—Every now and then, a Pavlovian kind of reaction is unhinged from within the bowels of even the most hardened scouts. Like salivating dogs, they’re goaded out of their usually impassive approach to the evaluation process, an effect of the seemingly endless parade of mediocrity that they have encountered time and again, and driven to the point of pure captivation at the sight of a truly unique talent.
Cornerback Akhello Witherspoon is a unique talent. He and his lanky 6-3, 180-pound frame recently stumbled into the consciousness of those who represent big-time college football as he was in the midst of a stellar freshman year at Sacramento City College. For most of the time since, he has been the fortunate victim of a tug of war between suitors, most of which would come just short of selling their souls for the rights to such a talent.
By December, after a few months of this, he had finally decided and then publicly announced that he would be attending the University of Colorado. Head coach Mike MacIntyre could finally give out a sigh of relief. After a long recruiting process, they had at last gotten their man.
“He is a big, athletic corner who is smart and has very good range and speed,” said MacIntyre shortly after the signing. “He’s unique because over the last 16 months or so, he’s really sprouted growing and he still has the same speed and quickness. We had been targeting him for some time because we saw something special in him.”
By all accounts, Witherspoon has been classified as a “late bloomer.” It’s a rationale scouts often use to describe a player who was repeatedly overlooked until he ultimately fell through the cracks. In this case however, in reference solely to football, it happens to be accurate.
Witherspoon spent the first three years of his high school life playing baseball, basketball and soccer for Christian Brothers High School in his hometown of Sacramento. It wasn’t until his senior year that he decided to take up football and from that came over a dozen schools who took notice of his exceptional talent.
“I waited until my senior year to start playing football because I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do,” said Witherspoon. “I had so much else going on that I just didn’t have time for it but I’ve always loved it, so by my senior year I figured it was time.”
After high school, he surprised some by choosing to attend Sacramento City College and remain close to home for a year before making a final decision as to play Division I football. During that one season, as he further displayed his skills as a lock-down, sure-tackling cornerback, the scouts just kept coming. In the end it was MacIntyre and his persistent staff that impressed Witherspoon the most.
“I love this coaching staff,” said Witherspoon. “That’s one of the many reasons I came here. It feels like family around this staff. That and the city of Boulder is what sold me. I’m very happy with my decision. I’m a big, tall corner that can run and that’s what they were looking for.”
The very nature of football has always been designed to inhibit the defense. The bigger, taller and faster are usually drawn, or in some cases forced, over to the offensive side of the ball. As the game strays further and further away from its smash mouth roots and more towards the aerial, speed-driven circus that it has now become, the ability to score as quick and as often as possible has become even more imperative than ever before. As offenses flourish, defenses suffer. They are forced to work with dwindling levels of talent as offensive excellence has become the game’s primary objective.
In that sense, Witherspoon is a unique talent. Such stature, length, speed and football acumen is rare at cornerback. Too often, the position has been littered with under-sized players who lack the instinctive characteristics needed to defend that blend of skill, size and quickness that has come to define the position of wide receiver.
“I think my length and ability to run benefit me most as a (cornerback),” said Witherspoon. “I think I could have played on offense but, I’m a cornerback at heart. I love playing the position.”
Witherspoon is something some coaches might never see: a defensive back with all the talent and athleticism to play wide receiver and all of the luck to have never been coerced into it. He is for all the intents and purposes, what coaches are describing when they mention the prototypical cornerback. Only his raw and unrefined familiarity at the position has kept the football world from full-blown levels of hysteria in describing his skill.
“I still have to get better,” said Witherspoon. “I’m definitely not where I want to be yet. I want to work on my press technique and just try to be more patient. I also want to use my length to get into receivers earlier. That’s what I want to focus on this spring.”
Witherspoon is a welcomed addition to a Colorado secondary that has given up 63 touchdown passes and recorded just 13 interceptions over the last two seasons. In a conference where eight of the league’s 12 teams rank in the top 50 in the nation in passing those numbers, as might have been expected, often translated into losses.
The recent signings of players like Witherspoon and fellow 6-3 cornerback Evan White coupled with MacIntyre’s desire to become more involved in coaching the cornerbacks this year, offer the hope that the unit could be among the most improved on the roster in 2014.
“To get the opportunity to be coached by coach (MacIntyre) is more than I asked for when I came here,” said Witherspoon. “He’s been more involved coaching the corners which is awesome.
“I think this was already a talented unit before I got here but I think we’re going to be even better now. I’m here to try to take a spot and it’s going to be tough. I just always want to make a good impression on the field.”
Despite all he can offer on the field, coaches think what may be even more impressive is Witherspoon's drive to accomplish even more off of it. At a high school where 99 percent of the graduates go on to enroll in college, Witherspoon managed to stand out. Christian Brothers is known around the Sacramento area for their academic excellence more than anything else and that is what originally drew him to it. Four years later, he emerged from it with the aspiration of one day becoming a doctor once his football career is over.
“Football can’t go on forever and when I’m finished playing I want to have something to fall back on. I’ve always been interested in Integrative Physiology and becoming a doctor would help me fulfill another one of my dreams.”
A unique talent indeed.