Allen Park — You’ve probably heard it said before, but a cornerback must have a short-term memory to be successful. The thought process being if you dwell longer than necessary on a mistake, you leave yourself open to it impacting you a second time.
Jeff Okudah, the Detroit Lions’ first-round pick a year ago, has taken that mantra to different level after stumbling upon the principals of stoicism during the offseason.
There’s little question Okudah didn’t have the rookie season he hoped or envisioned. Selected with the No. 3 pick — the earliest a cornerback had been taken in more than two decades — he battled injuries throughout the campaign, all while trying to cover a slate of many of the game’s top receivers.
Predictably, given the circumstances, things went poorly. Outside of an impressive interception, diving in front of Arizona Cardinals All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins to make the play, Okudah allowed 41 of the 53 passes his direction to be completed for 594 yards and two scores.
But that season, those mistakes, they are in the past. Okudah doesn’t live there. Nor is he allowing himself to think ahead to Detroit’s season opener, where he will have an opportunity to begin erasing the memory of his rookie year and the outside criticism that has come attached to it.
No, after stumbling upon author Ryan Holiday’s book, “Stillness is the Key,” and progressing through to “Meditations” by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, Okudah has been training his mind to channel all his energy to the present.
“I just try to keep the mindset of staying in the present moment,” Okudah said. “I don’t really look into the future. I don’t really reminisce on the past too much. Just staying in the present moment. Now that practice is over, I’m just going to move on. Get the coaching points for a minute then get ready to prepare for tomorrow.”
The good news for the Lions is Okudah is physically healthy. A core muscle injury prematurely ended last season and he later acknowledged it had been lingering for a while, impacting his ability to accelerate. He got that surgically repaired, and according to reports, preemptively addressed the other side, out of an abundance of precaution.
But more important than healed muscles and joints, Okudah said the offseason offered him a time to get right mentally.
“Honestly, it was more important to get mentally right than to get physically right,” Okudah said. “Over the course of this 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. Those things have been really applicable to my game and I think they’ve helped me on the field so far.”
It’s premature to suggest things are suddenly going to click for Okudah, but it’s fairly common for NFL players to make their most significant jump in development between their first and second season. And given the uniqueness of his rookie year, which saw much of the offseason program be moved to a purely virtual environment, the sense of normalcy that returned this year only figures to further help.
“I feel like it’s night and day,” Okudah said. “Just being able to end the season, have an OTA period, have a training thing where I can go pinpoint all my weaknesses and work on them, then have a training camp, I think that’s been a great help for me.”
Additionally, Okudah has clicked with Detroit’s new coaching staff, a group excited about the talent they’ve inherited.
“He’s really been from day one, 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.”
Campbell said Okudah’s confidence is evident in everything he’s doing around the facility, from his body language to the questions he’s asking in the meeting rooms of defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and defensive-backs coach Aubrey Pleasant.
“It’s one thing when a guy says it, but when he goes and wants to spend extra time with the defensive coaches on his own, then 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.”
During a special teams segment within Thursday’s practice, Okudah, along with teammate Amani Oruwariye, had a lengthy side session with Pleasant. For nearly 10 minutes, the trio intricately went over the finer points of footwork and hand placement that goes into press coverage.
Football is known as a game of inches and Okudah said the details they’re covering in those moments can be the difference between allowing a reception or coming up with an interception. It’s the kind of coaching Okudah craves.
“Honestly, I feel like me and coach Pleasant are kind of a match made in heaven,” Okudah said. “My game is already based around technique, being a technician. That’s something that he’s brought to the table every single day. He’s someone that’s detailed-oriented. He understands that I’m going to ask a lot of questions, so he never really gets frustrated. He answers my questions and that’s been pretty big, having a coach that’s willing to embrace the kind of player I am and put his full belief and confidence into me being the player he envisions me being.”
What everyone envisions, despite the rocky start to his career, is one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks.
“Jeff’s a specimen, man. Great size, great speed, great twitch, great instincts, he can be an amazing player,” teammate Dean Marlowe said. “He had some injuries last year that I heard about and he’s a guy that is young, but also pushes other guys around him. He works his butt off in treatment, staying late on the practice field and he’s a personable guy that you can talk to. He’s always in your ear. He’s in my ear about film and what I can do better, what can he do better.
“He brings a lot to the table.”