Detroit Lions’ Jeff Okudah, Will Harris taking starting CB battle down to wire

Detroit Free Press

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Jeff Okudah and Will Harris will both see playing time for the Detroit Lions defense this fall, but Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said he wants to enter the season with a defined starter at the No. 2 cornerback spot.

“I’m not just saying this just to be saying it, but both of those guys have been showing some really good things on the field in practice and in games,” Glenn said Tuesday. “This is an ongoing battle and it will be an ongoing battle. I wish I could sit here and tell you exactly when we could say, ‘OK, here’s the stamp, here’s the guy that’s going to be the starter.’ But I will say this, both of those guys will have a role within our defense and were going to try to do everything we can to make sure that we put those guys in a situation where they’re going to be successful.”

Okudah and Harris have been alternating at the left cornerback spot opposite Amani Oruwariye throughout camp.

Harris started the Lions’ preseason-opening loss to the Atlanta Falcons, but gave way to Okudah after he left with a finger injury on the Lions’ first defensive series.

Harris and Okudah played together on the second defensive series against the Falcons, after Oruwariye had been pulled from the game, and the two started last week’s preseason win over the Indianapolis Colts when the Lions sat most of their starters after two days of joint practices.

Glenn said Okudah and Harris will not rotate once regular season games begin Sept. 11, but whoever does not win the starting job will play in dime and penny packages.

“Once the season goes, we’re going to have a guy that’s going to be that starter,” Glenn said.

MORE BIRKETT: Taking stock of injuries for Lions, Eagles ahead of season opener

Both Okudah and Harris have endured choppy preseasons and the Lions’ secondary is arguably their biggest concern coming out of training camp.

Okudah, the No. 3 pick of the 2020 NFL draft, has appeared in 10 career games with seven starts as he’s battled injuries the past two seasons. He elected to undergo groin surgery as a rookie to correct a nagging college injury, then ruptured his Achilles tendon in the season-opener last year.

Harris played safety for most of his first three NFL seasons, but moved to cornerback late last season as injuries mounted in the Lions secondary. He has played exclusively cornerback this summer.

Lions secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant said Okudah’s “mental health is where it needs to be” entering the season, and the hope is that translates to improved play on the field.

“I think mental health and his game are actually linked together,” Pleasant said. “So as he stays mentally where he needs to be and focus on the small things like his technique, communication, the eye discipline, I think his game is going to continue to progress. I think everybody in here knows, whether you know football or not, Jeff Okudah is a very good athlete. You just watch football, so let’s make that athleticism catch up to the football IQ.”

Pleasant said he has not seen enough of Okudah yet to know what to expect from Okudah when real games begin.

“You guys probably don’t believe it, but there’s some guys that are called practice players who go out there and practice and they make everything right and they do it right but yet under the lights they’re not able to excel,” Pleasant said. “And by no means am I saying that with Jeff, but I don’t feel comfortable enough to hang my hat on that until I actually see it as a coach. But again, for him to finish the way he did, (having a pass breakup after a rough start) before his injury that first game last year is promising.”

Passing the peas

The Lions have a second position battle going in their secondary — for the starting slot cornerback job.

Pleasant said returning starter AJ Parker and free agent addition Mike Hughes are in a “very tight” race for the starting spot.

“Close,” he said. “Competition brings the greatest of us all.”

Parker had one interception and forced one fumble in 13 games last season, when he won the starting nickel job coming out of camp as an undrafted rookie.

Hughes, a first-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings in 2018, has taken more first-team reps of late, something Pleasant said was by design to ratchet up the competition.

“I think we’re passing the peas, we’re giving both of those guys a very good opportunity to fight for their right,” Pleasant said. “I think both of them are two different players and they bring a different form of skill set to our defense but both of them are honorable in what they bring. And I just really believe as a coach, you can’t tell the guys that they’re going to go compete for a spot and not give them an equal slice.”

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

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