‘Nobody wants it more than’ Detroit Lions CB Jeff Okudah in recovery from torn Achilles

Detroit Free Press

Even when his personal life was spinning out of control, when his mother died from lymphoma six days after he left for Ohio State, Jeff Okudah took solace in knowing football came easy.

He was a high school All-American in talent-rich Texas and a star for the Buckeyes who tied Shawn Springs in 2020 as the highest cornerback taken in the modern NFL draft.

But Okudah’s first two NFL seasons did not go according to plan, and as the third-year defensive back returned to the field for the start of Detroit Lions training camp Wednesday, 318 days after rupturing his left Achilles tendon, he said the struggles he endured off the field have given him valuable perspective on it.

“I think just being a rookie first of all, coming from Ohio State, it’s just easy to get caught up in the way things are and not really realize the reality of what this game requires,” Okudah said. “So I would say going through that has definitely helped me grow up.”

Okudah was close to a full participant in practice Wednesday, the latest milestone in his nearly 11-month rehab.

He took first-team reps at left cornerback in the Lions’ only true full-team period and appears  on his way to being ready to start the regular season Sept. 11 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Okudah reported to camp over the weekend with rookies, quarterbacks and the Lions’ other injured players. He passed his physical and conditioning test, and Lions coach Dan Campbell said the plan is for Okudah to practice without restrictions the rest of the summer.

“Nobody wants it more than he does,” Campbell said. “I mean he’s put in the work, he looks healthy, and I think at this point all you can do now is go to work and show what you’ve got and see if you can continue to progress. Because look, ultimately, that’s the thing here is he just hadn’t got a ton of football in him because of the injury.”

Okudah has played 10 games in his first two seasons, fewer than all but two of the top-79 picks in the 2020 draft: Green Bay Packers backup quarterback Jordan Love (six) and former Tennessee Titans lineman Isaiah Wilson (one).

He made six underwhelming starts as a rookie, allowing completions on 41 of the 53 passes thrown his way (77.3%), according to Pro Football Reference, and elected to undergo groin surgery late in the year to fix a lingering college injury.

Last season, Okudah was ticketed for a full-time duties on defense before injuring his leg in the Lions’ first game. He played 48 snaps, gave up one touchdown and got chewed out by secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant on the sideline.

“Now that he’s healthy, to be able to continue to develop, he was on a good trajectory before the injury happened last year,” Campbell said. “So we would anticipate that he’ll pick back up where he left off and then some.”

Lions training camp observations: Dan Campbell’s optimism starts with his staff ]

Okudah said one of his goals in rehab was to be on the field for the first day of training camp. Teammate Romeo Okwara, who tore his Achilles tendon a month after Okudah, has not yet returned to practice and opened camp on the physically unable to perform list.

“A blessing just to know where I was at a year ago,” Okudah said. “First time competing in about 11 months, so just get out here was a really, really big accolade for me personally.”

Okudah chronicled his recovery on social media, posting pictures and videos as motivation for others trying to come back from serious injuries.

He sought advice last year from NBA players John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins on their return from Achilles injuries, and befriended Purdue cornerback Cory Trice, who messaged Okudah during his rehab from a season-ending knee injury to say he was inspired by Okudah’s resilience.

“I wasn’t really sure the magnitude of what the posts were, but hearing things like that, for me it just was able to give me a new perspective on just how big it is,” he said. “I think it’s just really, in a way, like my job to kind of pay it forward and inspire the next guy, maybe he can inspire the next guy.”

Okudah will have to earn his starting job in the Lions’ young secondary this fall. Will Harris took some first-team reps at left cornerback opposite Amani Oruwariye on Wednesday, and free agent addition Mike Hughes also will be in the mix.

He said he’s not concerned about silencing critics ready to label him a bust, and just wants to play football at a high level for his team.

“Honestly, I’m not really necessarily concerned about showing people stuff,” Okudah said. “Just really showing myself that my abilities are what I think they are, and showing the people who just believed in me throughout this whole process that I won’t let them down.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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