Jeff Okudah ran stride-for-stride down the right sideline with Tyrell Williams in the second-to-last period of practice Thursday, then let out a scream as he knocked a Jared Goff pass harmlessly to the ground.
Three plays later, Okudah chased Kalif Raymond across the field following a long gain on a screen and was greeted by an animated Detroit Lions assistant appreciative of his hustle.
Okudah matched the speeds of two of the Lions’ fastest players on Day 2 of training camp, showing a burst he did not have as a rookie, when his season was cut short by a groin injury.
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He had core muscle surgery in December and is 100% now, but Okudah said Thursday his metamorphosis as an NFL cornerback goes much deeper than physical gains.
During rehab this offseason, Okudah studied stoic philosophy in an effort to get his mind right after a difficult rookie year.
He read the Ryan Holiday book “Stillness Is The Key,” and liked that so much that he picked up two more Holiday books, “The Obstacle Is The Way” and “Ego Is The Enemy.” He watched YouTube videos by the author, read daily meditations — including some by ancient philosopher Marcus Aurelius — and in the process found a new inner peace.
“I think honestly it was more important to get mentally right than to get physically right,” Okudah said. “Over the course of the offseason, just started reading up on stoic philosophy, kind of getting a sense of stillness and tranquility. I think that’s been pretty big for me, staying in the present moment. So just things that have been really applicable to my game and I think that they’ve helped me on the field so far.”
Okudah has worked exclusively at left cornerback with the No. 1 defense so far in training camp and, 15 months after the Lions made him the No. 3 overall pick in 2020, he has some in the organization cautiously optimistic about a breakout year.
“From Day 1 meeting with him in the spring, you can tell he wanted to be better,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “He wanted to be a lot better than he was last year. That was very evident. Let’s just call it what it is: You can’t be better if you’re not truly wanting to be better. Accept that what I put out there last year just wasn’t good enough. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but he’s done that. He’s very confident right now.”
Okudah has good reason to be confident despite last year’s struggles.
He has the ideal frame for an NFL cornerback at 6 feet 1 and 202 pounds, a blue-chip pedigree from his days at Ohio State and, this year, a defensive back-friendly scheme under a coordinator (Aaron Glenn) and position coach (Aubrey Pleasant) known for their work with defensive backs.
“I feel like me and Coach Pleasant are kind of like a match made in heaven,” Okudah said. “My game’s always based around technique, being a technician. And that’s something that he’s brought to the table every single day. He’s someone that’s really detail oriented. He understands that I’m going to ask a lot of questions, so he never really gets frustrated, answers my questions. And that’s been pretty big, just to be able to have a coach that’s willing to embrace the kind of player that I am and, like I said, put his full belief and confidence in me that I can become the player that he envisions me being.”
So far, Okudah said he has felt a “night-and-day” difference between this year’s training camp and the one he took part in last year as a rookie.
With no preseason games to work out kinks, and that college groin injury still lingering, Okudah struggled much of last summer. He sat out a season-opening loss to the Chicago Bears, when the Lions lost starting cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman to injury, then allowed six catches for 96 yards in a Week 2 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
By the time he opted for surgery in early December, Okudah seemed fried mentally.
“At cornerback, especially, confidence is almost everything with the position,” Okudah said. “It’s a really mental game, one of the positions that when you mess up, everyone sees it even if you don’t really understand football. So I think just to be able to carry a high level of confidence, it pays great dividends over the course of a season.”
Campbell said Okudah’s confidence is evident in his body language, and the way he carries himself around coaches and teammates. He asks probing questions during meetings, spends extra time with defensive coaches and has taken a mentoring role with rookie defensive back Jerry Jacobs.
“You watch him and listen to him and how he attacks everything, you can feel it,” Campbell said. “There again, it’s early, it’s a long season, we’re going to have ups and downs, but he’s in a good place right now.”
Okudah said he is determined to stay in that “good place” by focusing on the here and now. He’s not looking ahead to the season, or back at last year.
“Obviously, I have high standards for myself so I’m determined to uphold those standards,” he said. “To be honest, I’m more so determined to prove my worth to my teammates, prove my worth to my coaches, really prove my worth to the city of Detroit, just put out a product that they can be proud of.”