Med school can wait while new CB Ahkello Witherspoon pursues PhD in learning Steelers defense
New Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon recently earned his undergraduate degree in ecological and evolutionary biology from Colorado, and he wants to become a doctor.
Those plans, however, are on the back burner. He has more immediate matters at hand as a football player.
“I’m putting my degree on hold until it’s time to pursue medical school,” the 26-year-old Witherspoon said Monday, “which will be when my time here or other business ventures are done, and I’ll take a shot at that.”
Witherspoon’s immediate goal is taking a shot at contributing to the Steelers defense. At 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, he is lean, long outside corner who could compete for a starting role if the Steelers believe Cam Sutton is better suited at slot corner.
On Monday, Witherspoon practiced for the first time with his new team, completing a holiday weekend in which he learned of his trade from Seattle on Friday, took a cross-country flight Saturday and underwent his physical Sunday.
Witherspoon has six more days to get a better understanding of the Steelers defense before they play the Buffalo Bills in the season opener.
“The way we are talking about it is simple stuff to keep my brain free because a busy brain is going to slow you down on the field,” Witherspoon said. “I’m just taking it day by day. I’m very good at retaining information. Once I get more comfortable, we’ll add more to it.”
Witherspoon said he’s a good fit for the Steelers defense because of his ability to play man coverage.
“It’s important for my game,” he said. “Switching it up and giving quarterbacks different looks so we’re not as predictable.”
Second-year wide receiver Chase Claypool got a chance to test the new cornerback in practice Monday.
“It was only a couple reps,” said Claypool, who also provided tips on apartment hunting, “but he did a good job. Having size and speed, he’s really good.”
The Steelers gave up a fifth-round draft in 2023 in order to acquire Witherspoon, who had signed a one-year, $4 million contract with the Seahawks in March after spending four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. A former third-round draft pick, Witherspoon made 33 starts with San Francisco. He had four interceptions among 24 passes defensed.
Witherspoon was signed by the Seattle with the expectation he would start at cornerback. When he failed to sew up a job in the preseason, he was shipped to the Steelers, who were looking to upgrade their secondary.
Witherspoon resisted calling his brief tenure in Seattle and his hastened departure as a whirlwind.
“It’s the illusion of a whirlwind,” he said. “The job I do and the type of grace and gratitude I have for life and this game, that type of narrative doesn’t really fit my truest story, so I go with the flow. I’m here now where somebody wants me to compete and help them win a championship, and that’s what I plan to do.”
Witherspoon said he’s always maintained that philosophy.
“You go through so much, it gets easier,” he said. “I’m on like rep 1,000 of getting pushed down to the ground and, ‘OK, I’ve got to get back up.’ It’s getting easier. The first one was the toughest. I’m deep into this process of overcoming obstacles, so it’s like, ‘C’mon, let’s get it.’”
Only when the obstacle is too large to overcome in the NFL will Witherspoon turn his attention toward a career in medicine. He doesn’t know which school he wants to attend or what he wants to study, although sports medicine is a possibility.
“I’ve always been fascinated with education and the challenge of anything in life,” he said. “Cornerback is my favorite one now. When I’m done with that, I’ll go on to another one.”