Detroit Lions’ Jeff Okudah ‘looks like a totally different player.’ Here’s why

Detroit Free Press

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Jeff Okudah has always been a smart player. He’s always been a dedicated player.

He’s read “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor who most NFL players and quite a few sportswriters would probably guess was a Pro Bowl running back in the 1980s.

Yet this year, Okudah is something else.

“He looks like a totally different player,” Amani Oruwariye, Okudah’s fellow Detroit Lions cornerback, said Monday.

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You have to understand the significance of these words. While NFL players love to laud each other’s hard work and accomplishments, they don’t usually speak of their colleagues’ transformations, especially when they’re so stark.

“Mentally, physically he’s just attacking it,” Oruwariye said. “Clear mind, clear heart. And I’m loving it. He asks questions. You can tell he’s just in a different frame of mode when it comes to studying film and everything. Night and day.”

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Oruwariye is also a smart, dedicated player, and an observant teammate. He’s a year ahead of Okudah, so he saw what the No. 3 overall pick went through last year as a rookie during one of the NFL’s most challenging seasons.

“I just feel like he was just kind of learning,” Oruwariye said. “He’s a rookie, you know what I mean? Any rookie coming in, it’s hard. The NFL’s fast, it picks up pace. And maybe a lot of expectations that he don’t even need to read into.”

Of course, the expectations are always going to be there for Okudah. It’s just part of the deal when you’re drafted third overall. It’s a blessing and a curse. Some players, like Calvin Johnson and T.J. Hockenson, deal with the pressure and produce. Some players, like Eric Ebron and Jarrad Davis, don’t.

My guess is that Okudah has struggled with the pressure, which is what led him to Aurelius and other authors who espouse tranquility and stoicism. He’s working hard to be present in the moment and won’t answer questions about last season or this coming season. It’s just about the here and now for him.

Then there’s the speculation about Okudah’s groin injury. Questions have lingered about whether he should have had surgery before the 2020 season and how much the injury contributed to his disappointing season.

Even with all that, I never sensed tentativeness from Okudah during training camp last year. I only noticed that he was a keen observer and spoke with teammates and coaches frequently after plays.

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But after only five days of training camp this year, Okudah indeed looks different. He looks more engaged and aggressive any time he’s on the field.

During warmup drills Monday, secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant was explaining technique to the defensive backs and Okudah was the first one to ask a question. He’s almost always the first one in line for drills. He’s even mentoring Jerry Jacobs, an undrafted rookie cornerback from Arkansas he calls “my young bull” when he refers to him with a smile.

Okudah never publicly complained about the old regime. But it’s clear he feels a lot more support from the new coaching staff. Pleasant understands Okudah is a technician and he happily indulges his numerous questions.

“And that’s been pretty big,” Okudah said last week, “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.”

Frankly, this is what the Lions need. If they want their secondary, and their defense as a whole, to make significant improvement, if they want it to be totally different than it was last year, they need a player of Okudah’s caliber to lead the way.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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