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The Los Angeles Rams take on the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5 of the 2023 NFL Regular Season.
Ahkello Witherspoon exactly what young Rams secondary has needed
Signed as a free agent in late June, defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon's length, athleticism, and veteran experience have been invaluable to the Rams this season.
By Stu Jackson Oct 13, 2023
Photographs By Brevin Townsell and Jared Martinez/LA Rams

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – A big grin spread across the face of defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon, who affirmatively nodded his head as the reporter finished his question about what Witherspoon likes most about playing on the Rams defense.

"I like guarding one person, and they know I'm guarding them, and I know I'm guarding them, and the stadium knows that I'm guarding them, and it ain't going down like that," Witherspoon said. "That's what I love about this defense. There's not a lot of soft zones and who's got this guy, who's got that guy. It's like, 'Nah, I got you, and you know it, I know it, let's go.' That's what I like about his defense."

Five games in, Los Angeles is just as excited about what Witherspoon has brought to the unit, and how important of a piece he has become for L.A.'s young secondary this season.

Witherspoon has had a hand in each of the Rams' three takeaways this season, all of them coming in three-consecutive weeks. He had an interception in the fourth quarter of the Rams' Week 3 game against the Bengals, then followed that up with a fumble recovery against the Colts in Week 4 and an interception against the Eagles in Week 5.

According to Pro Football Focus, Witherspoon has a 36.7 passer rating allowed this season – second-lowest among cornerbacks with at least 100 coverage snaps this season entering Week 6.

The aggressive, sticky coverage concepts Witherspoon alluded to was part of what made signing with the Rams appealing, as well as getting to know defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and defensive backs coach/pass game coordinator Aubrey Pleasant based on the conversations he had with the two of them. He also had some familiarity with players on the Rams' roster, even with as young and turned-over as it was heading into the season. Piece by piece, each of those variables put together a natural fit in Los Angeles.

"Yeah, first, the scheme, just similar to what I did in San Francisco in terms of the stickiness and trying to be tight in coverage and make quarterbacks beat you, that's always appealing," Witherspoon said. "Just speaking to Raheem and Aub, they seem like great people first and foremost, so that was appealing. And honestly, just being able to be a part of a young group, I had watched guys like (defensive back) Jordan Fuller from afar, understanding his leadership role and the qualities he brings to the game. And then the unknown of the young guys, just being able to sprinkle some of my knowledge, some of my experience on them. All of those multiple parts came together very naturally."

The Rams, meanwhile, needed more length at cornerback to play alongside what they had at the position. Defensive backs coach/pass game coordinator Aubrey Pleasant said that the more length you have at the line of scrimmage, when you're trying to play press coverage, it "allows you to be able to have more space to get your work done."

"Anytime you look at the league, you see the receivers are not getting any smaller, they're also getting bigger as well, faster," Pleasant told "The more you can have a guy that can match up with those type of measurables, that don't feel like you're outmatched on just an attribute level, let alone a talent level, is something that you can always feel comfortable with. You'd like to have a different mix of guys so that you can have different matchup pieces, but that's something we definitely saw, as a veteran we thought we could take advantage of, if he was willing to come."

Thus, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Witherspoon was a logical target in free agency in late June.

"We wanted to add some length to the group, get some people that could absolutely go out there and play with those guys," Morris said. "At the time we had (former Rams defensive back) Robert Rochell who had good length, get those guys to compete in training camp. For him to come in and to be able to assume a starting position has definitely exceeded probably all of our expectations at the time that he came in, but probably not his with the way he goes about his business every single day."

Both teammates and coaches see Witherspoon as an even-keeled, stabilizing force in the secondary.

His personality is a little bit different from that of Derion Kendrick, who mans the other boundary cornerback spot, but they balance each other out well. Kendrick appreciates Witherspoon's personal energy and how it has directly impacted him.

"Everybody got their own way to bring guys to the game and stuff like that," Kendrick told "For him to me, it's just keeping me tapped in, staying locked in, not getting too comfortable when I'm not getting the ball thrown to me and stuff like that. He's always wanting to be better, wanting everybody to get better, and it just trickles down to everybody. And then we just go out there and rock out."

Morris uses the spectrum of Hip Hop and R&B to illustrate the contrast between Witherspoon, Kendrick and defensive back Cobie Durant.

"You got your two young guys out there, Decobie and DK, basically out there rapping, and then you got this smooth R&B guy on the other side that's just over there listening to Motown music with my mom and dad," Morris said. "So it's really cool to have that kind of mixture in the room. It's really cool how he bonds with his coach. They'll probably be doing yoga together at some point, him and Aubrey, so it's a really cool environment for him to be in."

Rams second-year defensive back Russ Yeast said the veteran presence of "AK" in their position group has been "huge," especially because of the way they can go to him – and his leadership and his experience – when things go bad.

"We're very young, you know, we're very energetic, sometimes we might be a little bit too much energetic, and we might get a little bit too high, might get a little too low sometimes," Yeast said. "AK is kind of the guy that can level us out and make sure that we're all even-keeled. So I'm grateful for him, and we learn from him every day."

Return to Week 4 at Lucas Oil Stadium for a moment. There was a play where the Rams secondary thought the Colts should have been flagged for pass interference after a long completion Witherspoon said he gave up, but it went uncalled. Los Angeles' secondary was unhappy about that no-call, and spending what Witherspoon must have felt was too much time focused on it.

So he spoke up.

"Everyone's arguing and wanting PI (pass interference), and I'm just looking at everybody like, 'Move the frick on!'" Witherspoon told "And everybody just kind of was like, 'Alright, there's nothing to do.' I just remember that, because everybody wanted an offensive PI. I was like, 'I don't care, we've got a play to make, there's more plays out there, it's not the end of the game.' I think everybody just kind of moved on and snapped back into the game."

Witherspoon initially had a hard time coming up with an example of when he served as that leveling presence, because he's not doing anything extra. He said that being "calmly present" comes naturally. The example above is not some act, nor did it come out of nowhere.

It's not just that authentic mindset and attitude, though, that has made him a fit within the Rams secondary.

One member of the Rams secondary was actually already familiar with Witherspoon, he just didn't realize it until Witherspoon signed with Los Angeles.

Kendrick said Witherspoon was actually a player he watched – albeit unknowingly – while viewing NFL games growing up. Once Kendrick came to that realization upon Witherspoon's arrival, and subsequently watched some of Witherspoon's NFL highlights, he became very excited about the possibilities of what Witherspoon could bring to the secondary, and also what they could do together.

"What's crazy (is), I didn't know I was watching him over the years, just watching football," Kendrick told "The Steelers was my team growing up as well, so got to watch him for a couple years before I got into the league. And then he got here, and I'm like, 'Damn, that was him?' And then we get him, I go back and watch some of his highlights, and I'm like, 'Damn, he's athletic! Like, damn. He big, strong, athletic, fast. That's great for the other side of me. And then we got Cobie, same thing, athletic, great speed. Just another addition, he fit right in."

Witherspoon brought to L.A. six years of NFL experience – four in San Francisco and two in Pittsburgh – and has set an example beyond those real-time moments like in Week 4.

Durant points out the way Witherspoon's vet mentality shows in his pre-practice routine. Witherspoon has his own way of doing things "that us young guys don't really like doing," Durant said, but watching the way Witherspoon takes care of his body serves as a distinct reminder for Durant and his young teammates of Witherspoon's business-like approach of showing up to work and playing football.

"He's very consistent," Pleasant said. "He doesn't really miss a beat. He has his plan and his routine, and I think he is always looking to get better. Especially for a guy that's played in the league as long as he has – several different very good coaches, different good schematic teams he's been with – anytime you always have that will to continue to learn, I think that's always encouraging for those guys that are watching him as well. 'Oh man, this guy's been playing for awhile, but he's still learning. Man, this guy's been playing for awhile, his body looks good, what does he do to keep his body in that shape?' All of those things help me as a leader in that room."

Witherspoon passes along knowledge not just through actions, but words as well. Durant said Witherspoon's "all-around knowledge" is where the former University of Colorado standout has made the biggest difference for Los Angeles' secondary.

"He wants to know everything – what's the star doing, what are the safeties doing," Durant told "The biggest thing for me, like, I play alongside both of them because I play in the star, his communication level is high. He wants to know if I'm doing this or if I'm doing that, before we even touch the field he wants to know. So it's good playing alongside a guy like that."

In the defensive back meeting room, Kendrick said Witherspoon is "a student of the game" and "so smart." Because Witherspoon has played for so long, Kendrick explains, he can see stuff before it happens.

Last week, Kendrick said they were going over a couple of things from a technique standpoint that could help him be better – "little things, like something that people may never think of."

There was a play in one of Kendrick's games where he could've made a pick-six, and a similar play came up in another game where he broke up the pass instead. Witherspoon then explained how working on his angles would help make the difference.

"The way I do it so naturally, like I played the top shoulder on this certain route instead of cutting it underneath and stuff like that," Kendrick explained. "So just like that one percent that he can help build up my game, and then whatever I can take to his. I can hand it to him, he's never like, 'Oh I'm one of those guys that have been here and know that,' he's always willing to learn. That's what you like about those guys that's gonna help you, and also want to be helped at the same time."

While the scheme has helped Witherspoon thrive, he also gives credit to the environment within the organization.

"It's been great for me," Witherspoon said. "I think the people around me is what's making it special. We have a good group of guys, good group of coaches, and I think just that collective of quality humans is what's making it fun for me."

Morris echoed Kendrick, in that the Rams learn from Witherspoon as much as Witherspoon learns from them. Morris said Witherspoon has brought "so much" with his technique, the questions he asks and other things he brings to the table, as well as those learnings from both sides.

"All of those things will go hand in hand when you got a guy that's got as much experience as he has, has been through some different experiences like he has been," Morris said. "He's been a couple different places, had some success, had some failures, and been able to bounce back and (is) playing really well for us."

Pleasant's first impression of Witherspoon was "an intelligent and eager player who was looking forward to taking his career to the next level." It was going to be the third stop in Witherspoon's now seven-year playing career, and Witherspoon was trying to make the most out of it, and willing to come in and compete. Pleasant said he was appreciative of Witherspoon having a viewpoint like that of where he was in his career.

"He's had an interesting journey, and I don't want to get too deep into it, but I think his journey has allowed him to be his best self at this place," Pleasant said. "I also think he appreciates how we are as leaders here, in allowing him to be his best self, no matter if that is personally or professionally. And I think he's rubbed off a lot on these guys from just his pure experiences, some of his trials and tribulations as well as the successes. Anytime you can get a veteran that has that type of endearment to his teammates is always something that's a positive."

Maybe it's the scheme. Maybe it's the atmosphere around him at the Rams' facility. Maybe it's that perspective he had when talking to the Rams about signing with them. Maybe it's all of the above.

Whatever the factor, the Rams have turned out to be a more natural fit than the team or Witherspoon could have imagined.

And that's a reason to smile.

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