Niyo: ‘He earned it’: For Lions’ Jeff Okudah, this comeback is just a start

Detroit News

Allen Park — They hear it every day on the practice field. They’re reminded of it regularly during film sessions. And it’s a lesson that the Lions’ Jeff Okudah says he has taken to heart during his halting — and humbling — NFL career.

“It’s about having a short memory,” he says, “and trying not to take everything so personal.”

That’s part of the Cornerback’s Oath, and it’s a mantra that Okudah, the star-crossed No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 draft, is trying to abide.

But it’s going to be darn-near impossible Sunday, when he comes running out of the tunnel at Ford Field, heads to the far end zone and takes a knee for a moment of pregame prayer prior to the Lions’ season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.

How can Jeff Okudah forget everything that’s happened over the last year? Or the last couple of years, for that matter? How difficult will it be to “just move on to the next play” when his pained memory of the last — 10:42 left in regulation, 49ers ball, third-and-18 from the Lions’ 46-yard line, dropping in zone coverage — still lingers.

“Same field that I got hurt on,” he says, nodding.

No, it won’t be easy. But this will mark another milestone for the third-year pro making a second comeback in as many years, this time from a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in the 2021 home opener. (Okudah’s rookie season ended before Thanksgiving as he underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia.)

Sunday’s return to the starting lineup — almost a year to the day after that Achilles injury left him sobbing uncontrollably as his Aunt Jane drove him home from the stadium — will be a chance to reflect “and just be a little bit proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish,” Okudah admits.

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It’ll be a reward for all the hard work that went into his injury rehab, an arduous recovery that took him from a surgeon in Green Bay to specialists and trainers in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas and even Canada. And from the darkest moments — “It kind of felt like I was living a nightmare, honestly,” he said of that initial diagnosis last September — to the bright lights and thunderous roars that’ll greet the hometown “Hard Knocks” team before Sunday’s 1 p.m. kickoff.

“It’s just a blessing,” Okudah says, “because I know where I was at mentally … and I came a long way.”

It’s coming full circle now, Okudah hopes, following a progression that took him from being unable to walk to running with the first-team defense again in training camp last month. And back officially into a starter’s role after a preseason battle with Will Harris for the left cornerback spot opposite Amani Oruwariye, shoring up a Lions secondary that general manager Brad Holmes admits was among the biggest unknowns heading into camp.

“Let’s just be honest. It was a lot of question marks back there,” the GM said.

“But I appreciate the way Jeff Okudah responded, and he was challenged and he earned it,” Holmes added. “We were upfront and honest with him and he didn’t cower, back down or anything. He took it and he earned it.”

In an Instagram post last fall, Okudah noted his middle name is Chidera, which in his parents’ native Nigerian dialect translates to “What God has destined for you, can’t be changed.”

“So something that I talked a lot about through the rehab,” he says now, “was just reminding myself that God’s not done with me.”

That the Lions weren’t, either, is not lost on Okudah, who was the highest-drafted cornerback in the NFL since 1997 but notably was not drafted by the current front office or this coaching staff.

Aaron Glenn, the Lions’ defensive coordinator, and Aubrey Pleasant, who is in charge of the secondary, certainly coached him like he was their own last year. “A match made in heaven,” Okudah called it, with lots of teaching and plenty of tough love. In fact, it was earlier in that opener against the 49ers that the Fox TV cameras captured Pleasant in a heated exchange with Okudah on the sideline.

This spring, though, there was a bit more empathy and understanding, as Okudah diligently took part in OTAs — “listening, being active, still being endearing to his teammates,” Pleasant said — and then went through his own drill work with trainers long after his teammates headed for the cold tubs.

Small victories

In June, before Okudah had been cleared to return to full practice, Pleasant acknowledged one of his biggest fears was “us getting past the fact of small victories are everything.” But those small victories add up. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Okudah says he’s both faster and stronger now than before the injury. And having heeded the advice of other elite athletes who’d gone through this ordeal, including the NBA’s John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, he feels fortunate to have attacked it the way he has.

“When the rehab process started, I didn’t know what to expect or what the other side of it would look like,” he said. “I know some guys come back and it might feel different, physically or mentally, (where) they don’t trust their body. But honestly, I don’t have those concerns.”

And what they’ve all found, in the end, is those small victories grew into something more: Trust.

“(The Lions) believing in the rehab process, the work that I was putting in, and giving me an opportunity to come out here and compete, that goes a long way,” Okudah said. “So, I’m out here just trying to make sure that I do right by them.”

There still is much to prove, obviously, for a top-five draft pick who has played in fewer career games (10) than all but two other first-round picks from his 2020 class. The snaps he did play were mostly a struggle, too, as Okudah allowed a 71% completion rate on 56 targets in coverage.

Most of that came as a rookie in a defense that seemed designed to fail, at times, in Matt Patricia’s ill-fated final season. The 23-year-old blames some of it on the “dysfunction” he encountered in 2020, including delaying that core-muscle surgery until December. At the same time, though, he also admits, “I was probably a little more naïve than I thought” coming out of Ohio State, where he lost as many games in three years as he did in one month as an NFL rookie.

“But that’s the thing that we can never lose sight of,” Lions head coach Dan Campbell said. “I mean, he’s going into Year 3 and he really hasn’t played.”

So with a fresh start, and a second chance (again) with this coaching staff, there’s another opportunity to prove himself this fall.

“And I think his confidence each week is going up — you can tell,” said Amon-Ra St. Brown, last year’s rookie surprise at wide receiver for the Lions. “As a player going up against him, he has it all: He’s athletic, he’s long, he’s tall, he’s strong, he can run. But you talk about his confidence, and I think coming off an injury like that, that’s the biggest thing, is confidence. And each week, he shows more and more confidence. So I’m excited to watch him go play ball.”

Sunday he’ll get a chance to do just that, with the Lions facing one of the NFL’s best young receiving tandems in A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith. For Okudah, that’ll be the task at hand, even with all those emotions at play.

“I still try to keep the mentality of, ‘The work is not finished,’” he said. “We still have a lot more to accomplish. So I’m proud, but at the same time, I’m still as motivated as ever. Because I don’t think I’ve come close to accomplishing my goals.”

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