Another new group of Buckeyes are about to officially become NFL players, so we’re taking a look back at the best highlights from their Ohio State careers in From the Shoe to the Show.
Ohio State is set to be one of the most well-represented schools in the NFL draft once again in 2020, with more than a dozen players who are expected to either be drafted or sign as undrafted free agents when this year’s draft is held later this month (April 23-25).
After starting with a look back at the highlights from Chase Young’s years in scarlet and gray, we continue with another five-star prospect from the class of 2017 – Jeff Okudah – who is now in line to potentially be a top-five NFL draft pick three years later.
From the Shoe to the Show
Okudah’s primary job isn’t to make big plays, but to prevent big plays being made against him, and he did an excellent job of that at Ohio State, especially in 2019. Because of the nature of the position he plays, Okudah doesn’t have as many obvious highlight-reel plays as most other top draft prospects, as a cornerback as dominant as Okudah doesn’t typically have the ball thrown his way very often.
Nonetheless, we’ve gone back through his Ohio State career to highlight some of his shining moments on the field – and a few from off the field – to demonstrate why Okudah is not only set to be Ohio State’s sixth first-round cornerback since 2014, but a player who should be remembered fondly by Buckeye fans for many years to come.
Tributes to his mother
One of Okudah’s most memorable moments as a Buckeye came on the day he committed to Ohio State, in January 2017, when he released a letter through The Players Tribune to his mother Marie, who battled lymphoma throughout his childhood. Marie died later that month, but Okudah’s penned tribute ensured the world would know just how big an impact his mother had on his life.
“Mom, you’ve done such an amazing job raising my sister and me. Now that she’s off at Texas A&M and I’m headed to Ohio State, you might think your work is done. You’ve always said that you would be content with your life once you saw both of us attending college.
“But just you wait, Mom. You’ve spent your whole life giving me the support I needed to achieve my dreams. Someday soon, I promise you, I’m going to help you live yours.”
Okudah’s mother never got to see him play at Ohio State, but his desire to keep his promise to his mother fueled him throughout his career with the Buckeyes and will continue to fuel him at the next level. On January 1, when he announced he would enter this year’s NFL draft, The Players Tribune published another letter from Okudah to his mother, in which he thanked her for helping him become the man he is today.
“Maybe I can’t reach out and hug you. Maybe I can’t call you up and talk to you about life, or classes, or about how such and such should have been a touchdown, and are these refs blind?! Maybe I won’t be able to have you there physically, sitting by my side, holding my hand on Draft Day in a new dress that we just bought.
“But you’re still here. You’ve always been here. You were here when I was trying to figure out life as a new student in those first few months after you passed. You were here when I was mapping out my goals as a defensive back with Coach Coombs on that board. You were here when I was welcoming this new coach of ours, Coach Hafley, with an open mind. You were here with me all season long, from the first practice to the last whistle, as I played the best football of my career. You were here for me after we lost in the semis to Clemson, in a game I wanted so bad — and thought we were good enough to win. You were here with me as I sat down to write this letter.
“And as I get going on this next journey of mine, and say goodbye to Ohio State and start the process leading up to April’s NFL draft — I know you’re going to be here with me then, too.”
“Elite” play on special teams
Before he emerged as one of the best cornerbacks in the country, Okudah started to make his mark at Ohio State on special teams – as is often the case for young Buckeyes – particularly in his sophomore season, when he and Terry McLaurin teamed up to create what was perhaps the best tandem of punt gunners in the country.
Okudah drew particular praise from Urban Meyer for his special teams efforts after the Buckeyes’ 27-26 victory over Penn State, in which he recorded three tackles in punt coverage and was also excellent in kickoff coverage.
“He was performing at an elite, elite level,” Meyer said.
Below are a couple examples from that game of why Meyer, who always appreciated a good special teams play, was so impressed by Okudah and his ability to track down a punt returner to perfection.
Dominant Rose Bowl performance caps off sophomore season
While expectations were huge for Okudah before he even arrived on campus, the majority of his first two seasons at Ohio State went without much fanfare. He only played occasionally on defense as a freshman until the season-ending Cotton Bowl, when he moved into the rotation because Denzel Ward chose to sit out the game as he prepared for the 2018 NFL draft. He became a regular in the rotation as a sophomore, but Ohio State’s defense struggled for most of the 2018 season, making it difficult for Okudah to shine.
In his final game of his sophomore season, however, Okudah’s star turn began. Okudah broke up several passes throughout the Buckeyes’ 28-23 Rose Bowl win – he was officially credited with two, but film study showed he was responsible for breaking up at least four passes – while he also had five tackles, including a shoestring tackle that saved a touchdown.
That performance, which you can see more highlights from below, showed that Okudah had the ability to establish himself during the 2019 season as an elite cornerback who could be one of the top picks in the 2020 NFL draft.
First interception finally comes
Much like Ward, who himself went on to be a top-five NFL draft pick after his junior season, Okudah entered his third and final year at Ohio State without a single interception in his career. Interceptions really aren’t a great statistic to measure a cornerback’s play by, but they do make good material for a highlight reel, and in the Buckeyes’ fourth game of the 2019 season against Miami (Ohio), Okudah finally got his first.
When Miami quarterback Brett Gabbert overthrew his receiver about 15 yards downfield, Okudah broke on the ball, laid out for it and secured the catch as he was going to the ground to finally record his first interception as a Buckeye.
Two interceptions one week later
While it took Okudah 29 games to record his first career interception, his first two-interception game – and the final two interceptions of his Ohio State career – came just one week later at Nebraska, where he came up with two picks before the first quarter was over.
His first interception came less than three minutes into the game. With Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez being pressured by Chase Young and Okudah in stride-for-stride coverage on Cornhuskers receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, Martinez attempted to force a pass to Robinson about 10 yards downfield and Okudah broke in the pass perfectly for a takeaway.
Later in the first quarter, Okudah came up with what may have been the most memorable of his Ohio State career. It was largely lucky, as he fell down on the play, but when Martinez overshot Robinson on a throw about 20 yards downfield, Okudah showed excellent ball skills and awareness to catch the ball – after Robinson tipped it – while flat on his back for his second interception of the night.
Should have been his signature play
OK, I know you probably don’t want another reminder of this play, but if it hadn’t been controversially overturned to an incompletion by the replay official, this probably would have gone down as the signature play of Okudah’s Ohio State career.
On what was initially ruled to be a catch by Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross in the third quarter of the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl, Okudah knocked the ball out of his hands and Jordan Fuller scooped it up and returned it for a touchdown, which would have given Ohio State the lead and might have very well made the difference in a game Clemson ultimately won 29-23.
Instead, it only went down as one of two pass breakups on the night for Okudah rather than a game-changing play – but it was still a great play on the ball by Okudah on a night where he was impressive as ever against one of college football’s most talented groups of receivers.
Okudah’s dominant play throughout the 2019 season both in coverage and as a tackler caught the attention of All-America voters across the country, as he was named as a unanimous All-American. He became just the second Ohio State cornerback to earn that recognition, joining Antoine Winfield (1998).
That wasn’t enough for Okudah to win the Jim Thorpe Award, which went to LSU safety Grant Delpit, or Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year, which went to Winfield’s son, a safety at Minnesota. Many would argue, though, that Okudah was the best defensive back in all of college football last season. Regardless, he’ll have a tree in Buckeye Grove immortalizing one of the best seasons that an Ohio State cornerback has ever had.
Sloppy? Try again
Yes, this one technically happened after his Ohio State career was over, so I’m cheating a little bit by including it here – but it was simply too good not to.
After shutting down opposing receivers all year on the field, Okudah made one of his cleanest deflections yet when a reporter at the NFL Scouting Combine asked him about his “tendency to get kind of sloppy” with “penalties and stuff.”
Someone who I'm guessing didn't watch much Jeff Okudah last year asked him about having "a tendency to get kind of sloppy."— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) February 28, 2020
Okudah's response: "I had zero pass interferences, zero holdings, so cut the tape on the game. I think you might see something else." pic.twitter.com/oQ3rrtP3q1
“I had zero pass interferences, zero holdings, so cut the tape on again. I think you might see something else,” Okudah responded.
Whether it’s an opposing receiver or an uninformed question, Okudah has proven has ability to confidently and smoothly be a shutdown cornerback, and as a result, he’ll very soon be leading an NFL secondary with the potential to become a star at the next level, just as he was at Ohio State, especially for the past year.