COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State cornerback Jeffrey Okudah’s freshman season was about as good as could have been hoped for at a position where few first-year players see the field, and even fewer play well.
By the end of the season, Okudah was the most popular player mentioned when teammates and coaches were asked which young player was impressing them the most. He drew praise from defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, defensive ends Jalyn Holmes and Sam Hubbard and safety Jordan Fuller.
The Illinois game seemed to be a turning point for Okudah, and more playing time followed over the final few weeks of the season as he continued to acclimate to the college level.
“I thought Greg Schiano and [cornerbacks coach] Kerry Coombs did a great job of feeding him what he could eat,” said Brent Whitson, who coached Okudah at South Grand Prairie in the Dallas suburbs. “They didn’t get ahead of what even your exceptional freshmen could handle. The most I got to watch him was the last three games, and that’s when he played the most football.”
What’s truly amazing is that Okudah played his first year of college football — and his last two years of high school — with a lingering labrum injury. It was never serious enough for Whitson or Ohio State’s staff to keep him off the field, but it progressed to the point that Ohio State decided to fix it with surgery during the offseason.
Okudah hasn’t been taking part in spring practice, which isn’t ideal, but it’s still fair to ask: If he became a 5-star and the No. 1 cornerback in the Class of 2018 while playing hurt, what might it look like when he’s fully healthy for the first time in years?
As it turns out, Ohio State coaches and fans aren’t the only ones dying to know.
“I’m interested to see if there will be a change in performance now that I’m getting back to being fully healthy,” Okudah said. “I think it’ll definitely give me confidence. You can go out there and play knowing your body feels good. I’m really interested to see how everything will pan out.”
Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette give Ohio State two returning starters at cornerback, but that won’t be enough to keep Okudah off the field. As a freshman, he played more snaps than Arnette in the Cotton Bowl opposite Sheffield with Denzel Ward sitting out to protect his draft stock.
New cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson has already said he wants to continue Coombs’ system of rotating cornerbacks, and Okudah gives Ohio State a third cornerback with which to do so.
“He’s such a smart young man, and he’s tough,” Johnson said. “He’s a guy who has some game experience, he’s long and he can do a lot of good things. I’m definitely excited.”
With Okudah about to be fully healthy for the first time in his college career, Johnson certainly isn’t the only one.