When Brad Holmes looked at the Detroit Lions secondary heading into training camp, he saw what just about everyone else saw: youth, inexperience and an extensive set of injury questions that had the potential to make or break the unit heading into the season.
“It was a lot of question marks back there,” Holmes said Thursday.
With the regular season just over a week away, Holmes said he sees something entirely different in his defensive backfield now — something that has a lot do with the emergence of third-year cornerback Jeff Okudah.
Okudah won the starting left cornerback job after a camp battle with Will Harris and, just shy of a year removed from rupturing his Achilles tendon, has a chance to make good on the promise he showed as the No. 3 pick in the 2020 NFL draft.
“I appreciate the way Jeff Okudah responded, and he was challenged and he earned it,” Holmes said. “And we were up front and honest with him and he didn’t cower, back down or anything. He took it and he earned it. So a lot of those questions were what were answered and it was much appreciated.”
Okudah has had a well-documented rough start to his NFL career.
He struggled as a rookie amid high expectations, allowing 77.4% of the passes thrown his way to be completed, according to Pro Football Reference, before electing to undergo season-ending groin surgery in December.
Ticketed for starting duty last season, Okudah tore his Achilles in the second half of the Lions’ season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers, which sent him on a long odyssey of rest, rehab and redemption.
Okudah said he spent time in California, Georgia, Texas, Canada and Michigan during the rehab process, and it wasn’t until the later stages of camp he pulled away from Harris to win the starting job.
“To be honest with you guys, when the rehab process started I didn’t know what to expect,” Okudah said. “Like what the other side of it would look like. I just really feel like I’ve been blessed tremendously to come back and not really — I know some guys come back and they (struggle) mentally, they don’t trust their body. But honestly I don’t have those concerns. I think that in itself is a blessing.”
Okudah said he is stronger and faster than he was before the injury, when he became the highest-drafted cornerback since 1997.
If he can emerge a better player, a secondary once thought to be the weak link of the Lions defense could emerge as a strength.
Amani Oruwariye will join Okudah in the starting lineup at cornerback, with Tracy Walker and free-agent addition DeShon Elliott at safety. Mike Hughes is in line for the slot cornerback job after winning his own camp battle with last year’s starter, AJ Parker. And Jerry Jacobs, who started nine games in Okudah’s absence last season before tearing his ACL, is a few weeks away from returning to the lineup, too.
“When I look at the whole camp, I would say coming in, just had to get back into the swing of things,” Okudah said. “Hadn’t really played ball, competitively at least, for 11 months so didn’t want to be too hard on myself getting back into the swing of things. But I think the last few weeks things have really picked up and feeling really comfortable in the direction that I’m trending.”
Okudah said there was no real turning point in his play this summer, just he recognized early on “I didn’t do enough.”
Steadily, Okudah showed more consistency while splitting reps with the first- and second-team defense. His confidence returned as he made more plays in practice, and after a solid two-week stretch of joint practices against the Indianapolis Colts and in last week’s preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he said he feels ready for whatever this season holds.
“Obviously camp’s been full speed ahead, but whenever I can just sit down and think about the journey thus far, the things that come with an Achilles injury and where I’m at, I try not to be too hard on myself and just be a little bit proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish,” Okudah said. “But that being said, I still try to keep the mentality of the work’s not finished. We’re still trying to – we’ve still got a lot more to accomplish. I’m proud, but at the same time I’m still as motivated as ever, as hungry as ever because I don’t think that I’ve come close to accomplishing my goals.”