PASADENA, Calif. — Jeffrey Okudah had extremely high expectations surrounding him when he committed to Ohio State as a part of the 2017 recruiting class. The Grand Prarie, Texas native was the No. 2 recruit in the state and the No. 1 cornerback in the class.
The expectation for him was always to be the leader of the Ohio State defensive backs, to be the next great Buckeye corners, following in the footsteps of Marshon Lattimore and Denzel Ward.
He has, at times, shown flashes of that, recovering a fumble against Minnesota on Oct. 13 and recording two broken-up passes against Michigan State on Nov. 11.
But, when he left the Rose Bowl after defeating Washington 28-23 to wrap up 2018, Okudah was focused on becoming the Lattimore and the Ward of the 2019 team.
“I see a group that is finally not young anymore, a group that has kind of grown up,” Okudah said. “So next year, we have no excuses to say we are a young DB group. We finally have experience.”
In the third quarter, with Ohio State holding 28-3 lead, Washington drove down to the field, facing a 1st-and-10 at the Buckeyes’ 28-yard line. After a sack by sophomore defensive end Chase Young forced senior quarterback Jake Browning and company back to the 34-yard line, Okudah secured the end of the drive.
Browning found sophomore wide receiver Aaron Fuller open enough, cutting to the right on a 10-yard out route towards the sideline. As the ball was thrown, Okudah threw himself in front of the ball, deflecting the pass before the ball hit Fuller’s hands.
Okudah got up quickly, sprinting towards the sideline waving his arms with a windmill celebration similar to one of former Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield.
“That’s like my son, that’s my brother,” redshirt junior cornerback Damon Arnette said. “I just love to see him do well and we feed off of everybody’s energy. He’s a very emotional player and it’s really easy to feed off of that positive energy that he brings to us.”
That is the energy Okudah said he wants to bring into the 2018 season after finishing the Rose Bowl with five tackles, four of which were solo, and two broken-up passes.
It’s been an energy that has not necessarily been noticeable from the room this season, struggling to find the identity of the unit within cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson’s press-man coverage base defense, something opposing offenses took advantage of throughout the season.
It was something Browning took advantage of: completing 35-of-54 pass attempts for 313 yards, tying a season-high in passing.
However, Arnette viewed the secondary’s performance against Browning as a stepping stone,. It’s something that had been a product of the past few weeks of practice, especially after wins against both Michigan and Northwestern.
“Our focus changed,” Arnette said. “We had a different level of intensity and focus that definitely translated over into the games later on in the season.”
The focus may have changed, but the expectation for the room never did. This is something Ohio State may have seen a glimpse of through the play of Okudah on Tuesday.
“I just feel like we proved that Ohio State is DBU,” Okudah said about the program becoming a premiere place for defensive backs. “Just because a lot of guys left to go to the league, it does not change. We got a legacy we got to uphold.”