Niyo: Lions’ Okudah gets second chance to make first impression

Detroit News

Aaron Glenn learned plenty over the years from Bill Parcells, his Hall of Fame mentor as a coach. But there’s one lesson that Glenn, the Lions’ new defensive coordinator, never had to learn the hard way in a decorated 15-year playing career in the NFL.

It’s one he’ll occasionally remind the next generation of, though, now that he’s an NFL coach himself: This league will forget about you quickly. And remembering that is the best way to avoid finding out just how quickly.

That’s not to suggest anybody has forgotten about Jeff Okudah here in Detroit. But with a new regime in charge of the Lions, and a new coaching staff in place in Allen Park, it’s not lost on last year’s first-round pick that there’s also a new opportunity for him here after a forgettable rookie season.

“There’s not too many times in life that you get a fresh start on so many different elements all at the same time,” Okudah said Thursday in his first media session since January. “So I’m just embracing that mindset. Like I said, it’s not really about proving people wrong, it’s proving myself right. … I wouldn’t say I have a chip on my shoulder, but I’m excited for this year.”

Okudah, as Lions fans may recall, was hampered by injuries for a good chunk of his rookie season, and after limping off the field in a shutout loss to Carolina in Week 10 he didn’t play again in 2021. He eventually was placed on IR and underwent core-muscle surgery — a procedure he would’ve preferred to have undergone sooner — in mid-December.

Nearly five months later, he says he’s feeling 100% healthy. He credits the Lions’ training staff, specifically Dave Granito and Tom Colt, with helping him through his rehab. And he’s confident it’ll make a difference when he and the rest of the Lions veterans get back on the field for workouts this month. He already has spent some time working out with new Lions receiver Breshad Perriman, among others.

“It just feels like I have a different level, that I wasn’t able to kind of tap into last year,” said Okudah, who also was bothered by hamstring and shoulder injuries as a rookie. “Just kind of moving around now and not having that pain in my groin anymore it just feels like a different level.”

Onus on the coaches

And it’ll have to be, if Okudah is going to live up to the expectations that inevitably come with being the highest-drafted cornerback (No. 3 overall) in the NFL since 1997.

Okudah finished with 47 tackles in nine games as a rookie, and grabbed one of only four interceptions the Lions’ beleaguered defense managed all season. But he also ranked 117th out of 124 qualifying cornerbacks in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Some of the blame for that falls on a defensive scheme under Matt Patricia that almost seemed, at times, like it was designed to highlight players’ weaknesses. Some of it can be written off as rookie growing pains, too, particularly at his position and in a year where there was only a virtual offseason and no preseason due to the pandemic.

But some of it surely is on Okudah, as he even noted in January, while talking about the Lions’ “dysfunction” and his own culture shock coming out of Ohio State, where he’d lost a total of four games in three seasons.

“You kind of get your little fantasy bubble popped,” he admitted, “and now you’re in the real world.”

So this is one of the real-world problems facing Campbell and his staff now. If this rebuilding effort in Detroit is going to have some concrete hope of turning the Lions into a winner anytime soon, it’s incumbent on the coaches — and Glenn in particular — to get the most out of some of the young talent they’re inheriting. Not just the new blood they’re bringing in on their own.

That’s something Patricia & Co. never really did, honestly. If you look at some of the high draft picks that were already here when Patricia arrived in 2018, it’s difficult to find too many developmental victories outside of Taylor Decker and Kenny Golladay, who’s no longer here. (On the other side, there’s Jarrad Davis, A’Shawn Robinson, Teez Tabor and more.)

But it’s easy to say it must happen here with at least a few of the would-be playmakers Quinn brought in on the defensive side, whether it’s Julian Okwara off the edge or Okudah and some of his running mates in the backfield, including Tracy Walker, Amani Oruwariye and Will Harris.

Raising the pups

Brad Holmes added a young face back there when he drafted Syracuse’s Ifeatu Melifonwu in the third round last weekend. And while he signed some short-term help in free agency — Quinton Dunbar, Corn Elder and Dean Marlowe — the new GM also talked up the “youth and the upside” that was already on the roster. As well as the ability of Glenn and Aubrey Pleasant, who spent the last four years coaching the Rams’ secondary, to bring them along.

“Just sitting down with them their first couple meetings, I was picking up so much that I thought to myself, ‘It would have been nice to have these tools in my toolbox my rookie year,’ ” Okudah said.

Glenn, for his part, compares this Lions secondary to the one he found in New Orleans when he joined Sean Payton’s staff in 2016. That was a group that added a high first-round pick in Marshon Lattimore in 2017 and went from allowing the most passing yards in the NFL in Glenn’s first season there to a top-five unit in 2020.

“When you have a group of athletes, you coach them, exactly tell them what they have to do and you get a chance to see a secondary that’s going to make plays for you,” Glenn said. “It kind of reminds me of my year in New Orleans when I had a young secondary. You get to grow these guys as pups. I’m excited about that.”

So is Okudah, who actually was coached by Glenn years ago when he was a much younger pup. He was one of the nation’s top football recruits invited to the Nike-sponsored prep showcase “The Opening” in Portland in the summer of 2016. Glenn, a fellow Texas native, served as one of the coaches for his Team Alpha Pro that week. (Patrick Surtain, who was drafted ninth overall by the Broncos last week, was one of Okudah’s teammates.)

And while they didn’t win in the end, “we learned a lot from him,” Okudah said. “So just to see everything come back full-circle to where he’s now my defensive coordinator, it has me really excited to get to work.”

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