Niyo: Lions rookie CB Jeff Okudah making steady strides into pro realm

Detroit News

The veterans are happy to give, sure. But they aren’t shy about taking, either.

And for NFL rookies — even highly touted ones like Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah — that’s a lesson that gets learned quickly in training camp.

Okudah, the No. 3 overall pick in April, got his first extended look with the Lions’ first-unit defense Friday in Allen Park, with starter Desmond Trufant sitting out team drills. The rookie out of Ohio State certainly took advantage of the opportunity, too, getting plenty of reps against the likes of Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones while flashing some of the athletic traits that made him the consensus top corner in this year’s draft.

He even took a pass away from Matthew Stafford, making a nice play on a deep ball intended for Jones and coming away with what appeared to be the first interception Stafford had thrown in camp all week.

But upon further review …

“The pick was on a free play,” Stafford said, smiling, as he politely corrected the record in a post-practice media session. “So I’m glad he made the pick, but it was a 5-yard offsides on the defense.”

Fitting in

And so it was, as Stafford took note of a lineman jumping too soon and deciding to throw one up for grabs to Jones downfield. Later, though, the Lions’ veteran quarterback also noted how the rookie corner the Lions’ are counting on to be a Day 1 starter this season seems to be getting more comfortable.

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“I’m glad he made the play, because that’s good for our team that he’s making plays down the field,” Stafford said of Okudah. “And that’s just an example of his ball skills. We get a free play, I’m putting one up to Marv, (but when) the DB goes and picks it, at least we don’t get a big play. That was a really nice play by him.”

Another sign of progress, too, as Okudah settles into this strange, new environment in the NFL, well aware of both the expectations and the urgency surrounding his preparations. The Lions’ season opener against Chicago is barely three weeks away.

“But for me, it’s just about laying down solid groundwork and finding something to get 1 percent better at every single day,” Okudah said Friday after practice. “It helps to not get overwhelmed, by just keeping the vision smaller.”

And yet, at the same time, the position he plays requires the exact opposite of tunnel vision. That’s something his head coach, Matt Patricia, pointed out this week when talking about the progress second-year cornerback Amani Oruwariye has made from his rookie season until now.

“He’s starting to open up the game a little bit in his vision,” Patricia said. “I think when you come in as a corner, as a young corner, it’s very narrow. You’re very concerned with your alignment, your matchup, your guy, your player, your coverage. And then as the corners go, because they are kind of so on an island out there, the more comfortable they get, they actually start to look at the rest of the field. It’s just a whole different position.”

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Luckily for Okudah, others are in a position to help, including Oruwariye, who has been getting regular first-team reps at right cornerback all week but doesn’t seem at all threatened by the rookie. In fact, the former Big Ten rivals — Oruwariye was a fifth-round pick out of Penn State in 2019 — already have developed a pretty solid bond.

“Me and Amani, we clicked from the start,” Okudah said. “And staying after practice with him, watching film, he’s really made the transition smoother.”

Said Oruwariye: “Coming in as a rookie, it’s like a freshman in college — it’s just all new. The speed of the game’s faster, so you’re just worried about making sure you’re in the right position and not messing up.”

Miscues and crash landings

Okudah knows that feeling now, and he’s had his share of slipups and mess-ups through the first handful padded practices this week. He’s taken a few hits as well, including an awkward landing after he laid out trying to make a play. He spent some time on the sideline with a member of the Lions’ training staff after that, before returning to action and making that interception.

“Got up, shrugged it off,” Okudah said. “I mean, it’s just pretty much a football play. … I think the big thing was that I was able to come back and finish the practice.”

The bigger thing is that he’s starting to get a better feel for what it’ll take to begin living up to all the hype, a process that’s being treated like a group project in Allen Park. (Okudah is one of only a dozen cornerbacks to go in the top five in the draft in the last 30 years.)

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“His head is probably spinning, he’s got a lot going on,” Golladay said. “So me and Marv just tried to tell him (in 1-on-1 drills), like, ‘Come up here and get some work with us. Don’t hang around the back. Just come up and get some work with the competition you’ll be seeing on Sunday, you know?’ We really just want to help him anyway we can.”

Of course, it helps that Okudah has been as advertised when it comes to his self-motivation and work ethic, traits that helped make him a consensus All-American at Ohio State and ultimately sold the Lions on him during the pre-draft process.

“He’s talking to Marv, he’s talking to Kenny, he’s talking to me,” Stafford said. “He’s trying to figure out what he can do better, and he’s a sponge, man. He’s trying to learn, and he understands that this game is different than the one he was playing (nine) months ago in college. But he’s a smart kid, athletic, got a bunch of skills, and we’re gonna do everything we can to get him up to speed as quick as possible.”

Everything but picking up the flag, that is. Rules are rules, especially for a rookie.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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