COLUMBUS, Ohio — Jeffrey Okudah skipped right past the coming attractions, straight to becoming a new featured attraction in the Ohio State secondary.
Any concerns that the ridiculous pipeline of NFL talent at cornerback might run dry soon were put to rest before the Buckeyes even had a chance to miss their next first-round pick.
The Cotton Bowl was supposed to be a send-off for Denzel Ward. Instead it turned into a welcome party for Okudah, who was pressed into a prominent role when his junior teammate elected to skip the matchup with Southern Cal last week in Dallas. And if he didn’t look out of place in a major bowl game, filling in for a proven star or defending a surefire NFL quarterback at the end of his freshman season, just imagine what Okudah might be capable of next season.
“I think I played all right,” Okudah said. “Obviously you don’t want to give up catches, so for someone who is just so hard on myself, I feel like there’s a lot of room for improvement.
“But I got a lot of game reps, got to go against one of the top quarterbacks in the country and played a really good receiving corps. So, that’s something I can just put in my bank and then hopefully get better from that.”
The Buckeyes are already getting more of a return than expected on their 5-star recruiting investment at this point, capped by Okudah’s solid effort in the dominant defensive outing against Sam Darnold and the Trojans.
The box score might not reveal much individual impact from Okudah specifically with only 4 tackles to his credit. But with Ward skipping the game completely and another starter missing some time after Damon Arnette was injured, Okudah more than held his own for a group that gave up just a single touchdown — which came after a special-teams turnover that handed USC a short field.
And while the reviews for Okudah’s debut season had already been overwhelmingly positive, his performance under pressure only raises the bar.
That wasn’t just praise for bowl practices. It wasn’t flashing talent in a spring game. And it wasn’t just his energetic work on special teams this season.
It was the Cotton Bowl. It was prime time at AT&T Stadium. It was against the Pac-12 champions and a passer who might be picked No. 1 overall in the draft next spring.
And Okudah didn’t look out of place dealing with any of it at all.
“Jeff played more than we anticipated because Damon Arnette got hurt, so he had to play more, and I thought he played very well,” cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said. “I love all those guys. I think Damon, Jeff and Kendall [Sheffield] have had great years and they were very prepared.
“That quarterback is really good, and I think he throws the ball right on target every time. So, sometimes when that happens, you’re going to give up a catch or two, but I’m excited about our future.”
Assuming Arnette and Sheffield decide to stick around as anticipated, Ohio State is clearly showing no signs of slowing down after already having three cornerbacks selected in the first round in the last two years.
Ward is close to a lock to make that four. And with Sheffield really improving down the stretch and finishing with 4 passes broken up, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble in the Cotton Bowl, he could be on his way to adding to that total next year.
After that? Based on this early success, Okudah could well be on his way to keeping the streak alive.
“I think this year was just a great opportunity to sit back and learn from the older guys, learn from a potential first-round pick,” Okudah said. “That was actually something I cherished, and I cherished every single moment of it.
“I feel like [this year] kind of followed the template of some of the previous guys — Denzel Ward, Gareon Conley. But obviously there’s a lot more work to do to reach where they’re at now.”
It’s true that Okudah may just be scratching the surface.
But he has now already proven he can handle the spotlight, and at his position in Ohio State’s program, that puts him squarely on the path to stardom.