Before departing from Ohio State as a projected first-round NFL Draft pick, Jeff Okudah said during fall camp there was something he couldn’t leave without.
When the junior cornerback finally picked off his first career pass against Miami (Ohio) Saturday, the Texas native didn’t think about being the top corner at No. 6 Ohio State, his breakout two-pass-breakup Rose Bowl performance or being a five-star recruit.
He thought about his late mother, Marie.
“I looked up, thanked God, and then I think I saw my mom just looking down, really proud of that moment,” Okudah said.
Ohio State’s pass defense ranks No. 19 in passing yards allowed nationally and climbing after giving up just 60 yards against Miami. Okudah, with his 14 tackles and tied-for-team-best three passes defended, is leading the charge.
With the elusive interception out of the way, he can shift his focus to leading the defense forward.
“He’s done a good job of taking on the technique that [co-defensive coordinator] Jeff [Hafley] is teaching him and embracing that,” head coach Ryan Day said. “I think the big thing for Jeff [Okudah] is, where are we going to go as we get into the middle of the season?”
This offseason, Okudah said he worked on the mental aspects of his game with Hafley, after working harder on his technique and physical ability as a freshman and sophomore.
Hafley fielded a question Aug. 20 about what makes Okudah special. The first thing he noted was Okudah’s drive, showing he has the ability to hone the mental aspects of his game.
“His work ethic,” Hafley said. “You know he’s an exceptional athlete. He’s got size, speed. He’s got great feet. He loves football, and he practices hard every single day.”
Having coached defensive backs in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers, Hafley has seen what it takes to play at a professional level.
He said what gives Okudah the edge is the corner’s mentality.
“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.”
Mentality is an important aspect of a defense. After falling behind in the first quarter of back-to-back games in Weeks 2 and 3, Ohio State came together to shut out Indiana in the second half and Miami in the final three quarters.
“We have to show that we’re not gonna revert back to last year,” Okudah said. “If things get rough, we’re gonna show that this is a new era of the [silver] bullets defense.”
The Buckeyes have the No. 3 scoring defense in the nation following their 76-5 Redhawk grounding.
With a full Big Ten slate ahead, Ohio State will need to carry that mojo forward when it faces better offenses.
“We have to be able to play tough,” Okudah said. “We have to be able to show that no matter what happens, we’re able to respond positively and keep that momentum going. We can’t lose that momentum.”
The challenge now for Okudah and the Buckeye defense, Day said, is what to do when teams get more tape and start scheming against his abilities.
“I think he’s flashed; got the interception last week, he’s done some good things, but now that some of this stuff is on film and teams start scheming us up, how are you going to be able to respond to it?” Day said.
He’ll have his next opportunity to test those abilities against Nebraska on Saturday.