Talent and youth so regularly walk through the doors of the Ohio State football team facilities that it’s a common occurrence for second-year players to jump older players who might have been former four- or five-star recruits themselves.
But there’s one position that requires youth to be ready: cornerback. And the freshman who benefited from that in 2017 was Jeffrey Okudah, who could be counted on for a larger role in the defensive backfield as a sophomore, even following offseason shoulder surgery.
Okudah was one of the lone bright spots on the kickoff team last season and showed promise in his limited playing time at corner, including his only start — against USC in the Cotton Bowl. The early departures of Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley after the 2016 season allowed Okudah a chance to seize that fourth spot as a freshman in the fall. Now with Denzel Ward departing early, Okudah has a chance to jump into more of a primary role.
This is just the nature of being a cornerback at Ohio State: expected to be ready Day One, expected to start Year Two.
Redshirt junior Damon Arnette and redshirt junior Kendall Sheffield figure to be the cornerbacks who will earn the most playing time in 2018 in what has typically been a three-man rotation. The third player will likely be Okudah, with the possibility of being the second starting cornerback if Arnette moves back to his more comfortable position of nickelback.
However, Okudah’s ability to compete for that spot took a hit. In his first media appearance since the Cotton Bowl, Okudah confirmed he had shoulder surgery in January. Surprisingly, he also said it was to repair a torn labrum that had been a lingering injury since his senior year of high school, meaning he played with the issue during the 2017 season.
“I think it’ll definitely give me a lot of confidence knowing that your body feels good,” Okudah said. “I’m really interested to see how it’ll pan out now that I’m getting back to being fully healthy.”
Because of the surgery, Okudah has not participated in spring practice. Instead, he has focused on watching films and participating in individual workouts.
Once Ward is presumably selected in the first round of the NFL draft at the end of this month, he will become Ohio State’s fifth first-round cornerback selected in the past five drafts. Ward’s decision to avoid risking injury by sitting out the Cotton Bowl gifted Okudah an invaluable, early opportunity for development against an elite receiving corps.
Ward’s departure also presents a conundrum that first-year cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson said is different for him in his second stint coaching the Buckeyes.
How does Ohio State continue its success at the position relying on young players?
“Just making sure we’re focused every day, and that’s a part of maturing that you got to teach those guys. Just what it means to bring it and be focused and be locked in and have juice and all those things when you don’t feel like it,” Johnson said. “If you have depth at the position and competition, that’s going to bring out the unit the best.”
Okudah was a part of a 2017 recruiting class that featured five highly rated cornerback prospects. Sheffield already had experience from a year at Alabama and a year in junior college, so there was some expectation he’d be in the mix for high snap counts.
Given the history of youth at the position and Okudah being the one who earned playing time out of his group of freshman, it’s certainly justifiable to place expectations on the speedy 6-foot-1 corner to have a breakout sophomore campaign.
Before Okudah, Eli Apple was expected to contribute his redshirt freshman season. Once he left, Lattimore became a first-year starter. Then it was Ward.
Now it’s Okudah’s turn. Only he has to do that after recovering from surgery and with a new position coach — because the program expects him to start in Year Two.
“I was just talking to Eli Apple maybe last week and it was hard to believe that he was playing in that Sugar Bowl as only a redshirt freshman,” Okudah said. “Definitely I think our class has a chance to be able to replicate what that class was able to do.”