From an early age, Jeff Okudah had the makings of a dominant defensive back. As a sophomore at South Grand Prairie High School in Texas, Okudah played rover, lining up at both safety and outside linebacker. However, he quickly transitioned to cornerback as a junior and emerged as one of the nation’s premier defensive backs. Okudah would go onto star at Ohio State before the Lions selected him with the 3rd-overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. His career trajectory with the Detroit Lions has been turbulent, with a mix of accomplishments and setbacks, but Okudah seems primed for a turnaround in 2023.
Jeff Okudah’s Early High School Development into a Dominant Cornerback
Despite measuring at 6’1″ and 190 pounds and being ranked as the nation’s No. 1 safety in high school, Okudah felt more comfortable playing cornerback. He finished his junior season with 46 tackles and four pass deflections, according to the Dallas Morning News. Okudah’s skills trainer, Clay Mack, attributes his success to his willingness to be versatile, to play any skill position on the field.
Mack, one of the most respected names in defensive back training in the greater Dallas area, began training Okudah three years prior. Mack challenged Okudah to become a “flex guy,” someone who can play multiple positions at a high level. Okudah bought into this philosophy and quickly transformed from an athlete with safety promise to an all-around defender. With Mack’s help, Okudah emerged as a jack-of-all-trades, comfortable playing cornerback, safety, or nickelback.
Jeff Okudah’s Training Philosophies around Being a Versatile Defensive Back
Okudah’s training with Mack was crucial to his development as a versatile defensive back. Mack emphasized that he didn’t train safeties or corners, but instead trained “DBs.” He challenged Okudah to be known as a “flex guy” who could play multiple positions, and Okudah responded with hard work and dedication.
Okudah also drew inspiration from other NFL stars like Jalen Ramsey, who plays all three positions (cornerback, safety, and nickelback) at a high level. Ramsey’s versatility has paid off. He has developed into an All-Pro and became the highest paid DB in history when he signed an extension with the LA Rams in 2020. Okudah aspired to follow in Ramsey’s footsteps and become a master of multiple positions.
In addition to training with Mack, Okudah trained with other future NFL stars growing up. The list includes LSU’s Jamal Adams and Ed Paris and Texas safety Jason Hall. Mack noted that Okudah saw what these athletes did and followed their example, leading to his emergence as a leader himself.
Okudah’s connection to future NFL stars like Adams, Paris, and Hall was crucial to his development. Their mentorship and drive helped shape Okudah into the player he is today. As he entered the college football recruiting process, Okudah wanted to play at a place where “iron sharpens iron.”
Ohio State, with its history of producing NFL talent, quickly emerged as a top choice for Okudah. Of his 30-plus offers, he said Ohio State always had the early edge. Other schools high on his recruiting list included Michigan, Alabama, Stanford, Texas, and Texas A&M.
Playing for His Mother
Despite his success on the field, Okudah is no stranger to hardships in life. However, none have been more heartbreaking than the loss of his mother, Marie Okudah. Just days after Jeff left home to head to Columbus in 2017, his mother lost her battle with lymphoma in 2017. Her passing devastated the young star. He even wrote a letter to her for The Players Tribune when he declared for the draft in January. In the letter, he opened up about everything he had been through since her death that led him to the moment of his draft declaration.
The impact his mother had on Okudah’s life is evident in the way he plays. The Lions’ cornerback has always played for his mother, even before her death, and credits her with instilling in him a strong work ethic. Okudah said at his introductory press conference with Detroit media, “Just seeing that [my mother] was doing chemotherapy, and she was still in nursing school, it just instilled a work ethic, just knowing that you get out what you put into things. I’m always trying to put my best foot forward and strive to be great.”
In a feature released by ESPN, Okudah and his sister Karen spoke about the impact their mother had on their lives, her struggles, and how Jeff honors her today. Okudah also planned on having a long conversation with his mother on draft night. He said, “She would’ve been in tears. Honestly, she didn’t really understand football like that just being born in Nigeria, but she knew what made me happy. So I think just her seeing me smile, me being really excited, I think that it would just bring her to tears.”
Draft Night and Beyond
The COVID-19 pandemic caused Okudah to change his draft plans, forcing him to spend draft night at his aunt’s house in suburban Dallas, surrounded by his aunt, uncle, sister, two cousins, and his trainer. However, the moment was no less memorable for the young cornerback. After the Detroit Lions selected him with the No. 3 pick, Okudah said, “It’s a crazy feeling being drafted that high. Obviously the Detroit Lions think a lot about me, and I think it’s up to me to return that and give them all that I have and go to work every single day with my teammates and be the best player that I can be.”
Okudah has been through a lot in his first two seasons in the NFL. He struggled with inconsistent coaching early on and suffered an Achilles tear early in the 2021 season. In his third year, Jeff Okudah showed flashes of his star power and transforming the Detroit Lions defense. He shut down top receivers, recorded tackles and tackles for loss. He offered versatility as a box defender while still being a plus in coverage. The cornerback struggled as the season wore on. However, there is still hope for a resurgence in 2023 and beyond. Okudah’s attention to detail and work ethic have made it easy to overlook some struggles along the way, so long as he was learning from them.
Jeff Okudah’s Trajectory
Okudah’s teammates celebrate his personal wins just as much as the ones reflected in the standings. His energy is infectious, and it’s rubbing off on the locker room. Lions safety DeShon Elliott, a fellow Texas native who’s known Jeff Okudah dating back to their high school days, believes these wins are helping Okudah get back to the player he was drafted to be — a difference-maker.
Despite playing in only 19 career games, Okudah’s career trajectory is pointing upward again after a tough season and an offseason full of questions about his future. He exudes a childlike love of the game because he knows what it took to get there in the first place.
Remember where Jeff Okudah came from
Though many seem to have forgot, Jeff Okudah is a five-star prospect from Texas. He was always an indispensable piece his coaches and teammates expected to make a play when needed. He went to Ohio State and was a Jim Thorpe Award finalist in his final season. A No. 3 NFL Draft pick, taken by the Lions to be an impact player.
Despite injuries and bad coaching early on, Jeff Okudah never lost confidence in his ability to contribute. He’s now proving he belongs in the NFL, and the Lions are figuring out what exactly what they have in him. Lions head coach Dan Campbell said. “I think Jeff’s officially out of the ‘just needs to continue to bank reps (phase).’ I think he’s banked a lot of reps now and he’s continuing to get better, and it’s showing. He’s playing physical. We’ve talked about him on the perimeter. He’s making plays out there, and he’s just so much more comfortable and confident right now. So, man, he’s trending the right way.”
Featured Photo Credit: Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports
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