Allen Park — Say whatever you want about Detroit Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah, but at the very least, concede this: He’s been through a lot during his first two seasons in the league.
Lofty goals arrived at his feet the moment Okudah was selected third overall by Bob Quinn and Co. in the 2020 NFL Draft. Okudah followed up a disappointing rookie season by suffering a torn Achilles in last year’s season opener against the 49ers. He’s got a lot of mountain to climb before he can reach those lofty goals.
Which is why, for now, defensive backs coach and passing-game coordinator Aubrey Pleasant is setting Okudah’s sights on “small victories.”
“Right now, we have (small victories) with him being here. He’s even here this week right now, being active during practice,” Pleasant said. “Day-by-day, small victories for him, and right now, he’s on the winning side.”
While most of the vets have gone home for a little rest and relaxation before training camp, Okudah, who still can’t participate in a majority of team drills, has stayed behind to both learn and lead. Throughout OTAs and minicamp, Okudah has warmed up with the defensive backs before grabbing a play sheet and acting as a pseudo-assistant throughout offense vs. defense competitions.
“He’s very much into every play — not only the personnel, but the offensive situation, as far as where the sticks are. He’s asking the right questions,” Pleasant said. “He’s also not afraid to be wrong. I think sometimes, humility is something that is not always easy for professional athletes. But, any time they show it, especially from learning or physically going out there and doing it, it’s my job as coach to make sure that it’s answered.”
Sunday officially marked the nine-month anniversary of Okudah’s injury. It’s unclear whether he’ll be ready to go full-bore in late July when training camp begins. In the meantime, he’s just happy to be back with the team.
“The best way to describe it, I’m going to be ready when I’m ready. I’m confident that I’ll be ready when it’s time to be ready,” Okudah said on June 2 while speaking with the media for the first time since his injury.
“I’m enjoying myself to the fullest extent you can enjoy something, just because I couldn’t walk to the restroom in September. I had to change my whole body. So, to be out here being able to do drills, whatever I can do, it’s a blessing because it wasn’t a guarantee that I would be out there.”
Pleasant is happy to see him back with the team, too. Not just because it seems Okudah is happier than he’s been since suffering the injury last September, but because he’s been an asset from a coaching standpoint and has squeezed all the developmental juice possible from the situation.
“I personally really appreciate it, but then also appreciate it for his teammates,” Pleasant said. “Anybody that’s gone through what Mr. Okudah has gone through his first couple years in the NFL, to see the way he’s transitioning, still being endearing to his teammates, listening, being active — I really believe as a coach sometimes, players can get lost in practice and not really learning from other people’s mistakes. And Jeff knows, specifically, that time is of the essence for him, and he’s trying to take full advantage of that.”
Pleasant had similar things to say about injured cornerback Jerry Jacobs, who suffered a torn ACL in December. Jacobs was signed by the Lions as an undrafted free agent out of Arkansas and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated UDFA — and the fifth-best rookie corner — after making 13 appearances and nine starts in 2021.
“He’s in a very good place. Again, small victories,” Pleasant said. “I like to say he’s ahead of the curve right now, and he’s another young man that’s very, very, very much into it with his teammates, practice, lift. He’s out there every day and I couldn’t ask for a better teammate than Jerry Jacobs.”
Of course, small victories are not the end-all, be-all. Pleasant said about Okudah, specifically, that they’re merely mile-markers on a journey to greater heights.
“My biggest fear is us getting past the fact of ‘small victories is everything,'” Pleasant said, adding that small victories eventually become “large goals.”
“But in order to obtain your goals, you have to have waypoints and deadlines to get there. And if you get too caught up in the goal, you lose essence of the process.”