While he may not come right out and say it, Jeffrey Okudah seems to have his sights set on the NFL.
The Ohio State junior cornerback is a projected first-round draft pick and has compared himself to Denzel Ward and Jalen Ramsey during fall camp –– both top-five NFL draft selections at the position.
With seven years of NFL experience under his belt, Jeff Hafley, first-year co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach, will help Okudah get there, but first he wants his star cornerback to focus on the task at hand.
“Here’s what I tell Jeff: ‘It’s one day at a time. Projections don’t mean anything,’” Hafley said. “He’s got to go out and prove it every single day. And practice is very important, and then he’s got to go play this year.”
The former No. 1 cornerback in the class of 2017, Okudah likened his Ohio State career trajectory to that of Denzel Ward. Both had zero interceptions entering their third year in the program, but if Okudah mirrors Ward, his junior season will lead to a lucrative early leap to the next level.
“I’m not leaving here with zero interceptions on a stat sheet,” Okudah said.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound corner said he’s targeting a range of three to six interceptions for himself in the 2019 season, and Hafley’s new scheme will help allow him to do it.
Okudah said Hafley, whom wide receivers coach Brian Hartline called the “best DB coach in the world,” shows him tapes of star NFL cornerback Richard Sherman, as well as tapes from the Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers.
Though Okudah said playing press man coverage on “nine out of 10 plays” was something he wanted to do as a younger player, Hafley’s implementation of more zone coverages has proved successful for creating turnovers in offseason practice.
On Tuesday, Hafley spoke about the physical gifts Okudah possesses, including the rangey length that lends credence to Ramsey comparisons, but added that it’s what the Grand Prairie, Texas, native has between the ears that sets him apart.
“What separates him from other people is his mindset, and that’s what the great ones have,” Hafley said. “That’s what he does. He works.”
While the work Okudah did to better his game in his first two seasons revolved around the physical and technical aspects of the sport, he said the acquisition of Hafley ahead of his junior year shifted his focus to the mental portion of the game.
Part of the mentality Hafley said he’s working on with his players is that their time with teammates at Ohio State may very well be the most fun they ever have playing football, even if an NFL future lies in the wake. Hafley called it a “distraction” for players like Okudah to begin looking ahead too early.
Even if they don’t directly discuss his individual goals, Okudah said Hafley knows what a high first-round cornerback looks like, and that the standard his coach holds him to is not by accident.
“He just lets me know that if I perform within his system and do what he tells me to do, that I have a chance to be a great player,” Okudah said. “That’s all I need is a chance.