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Jeff Okudah, latest product of Ohio State’s ‘DBU,’ is here to save the Lions’ secondary

Jeff Okudah’s NFL success would secure the Buckeyes’ status as the premier cornerback factory.

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Artwork of NFL CB prospect Jeff Okudah at Ohio State, superimposed on a black and white background with squiggly lines
Jeff Okudah will be the sixth Ohio State cornerback drafted in the first round since 2014.

The Detroit Lions selected Jeff Okudah with the third overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Here’s what Christian D’Andrea had to say about Okudah ahead of the draft.

Over the past decade, Ohio State has done two things better than anyone else in college football: beat Michigan and send cornerbacks to the NFL Draft.

The Buckeyes have had seven cornerbacks drafted since 2010 — edging out LSU and Washington for top honors. Five of those seven were first-round picks. Jeff Okudah, the highest-regarded defensive back in this year’s draft, could wind up selected higher than any of them.

Okudah needed just three years to leave his mark on the Big Ten, making an immediate impact as a true freshman and graduating to first-team All-American by his junior year. The versatile blue-chip recruit emerged as a lockdown corner capable of making quarterbacks regret looking to his side of the field. As a result, he’s projected as a premier pick at the 2020 NFL Draft; Pride of Detroit sees him filling a need with the Lions with the third overall selection — a top-five landing spot echoed by the majority of this year’s predictions, per SB Nation’s mock draft database.

What would he mean for a coverage-hungry franchise? A look at Okudah’s college play, along with the fortunes of other former Buckeyes, should help us know what to expect.

Okudah was one of the NCAA’s best corners — and faced elite competition

Okudah played in each Ohio State game as a freshman in 2017, but his path to the top of the depth chart was blocked by future NFL starters Denzel Ward and Kendall Sheffield, along with likely 2020 Day 2 pick Damon Arnette. Then he only started a single game in 2018 but still managed to tie for the team lead in passes defensed that fall. While Okudah wouldn’t become a full-time starter until 2019, he was a valued part of the secondary throughout his three seasons in Columbus.

The rangy corner allowed only 25 completions on 62 targets in man coverage for his college career, per Pro Football Focus. He forced nearly as many incompletions with his disruptive closing speed (13) as first downs allowed (14). He gave up only 5.2 yards per target in these one-on-one situations. His passer rating allowed was 42.7.

This came against some of the best teams in the NCAA. While he didn’t quite face a Big 12 murderer’s row of passing offenses, Okudah squared off with NFL top-five picks like Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold (albeit as a rotational CB his freshman and sophomore seasons) and notable college stars like Trevor Lawrence, Trace McSorley, Shea Patterson, and Nate Stanley.

At the NFL Scouting Combine, Wisconsin top target Quintez Cephus specifically singled Okudah out as the toughest assignment he had to face in his college career. He’s good as hell, and he knows it:

That means NFL teams can feel comfortable about leaving him on an island with limited safety help over the top. With solid size (6’1) and the quickness to turn and adjust to any route thrown his way, he’s a near lock to keep his Saturday success rolling into Sundays. That’s a transition several former teammates have made look easy.

Okudah can plant another Ohio State flag atop ‘Defensive Back U’ mountain

The last two Buckeye cornerbacks taken in the top half of the first round were Ward in 2018 (fourth overall) and Marshon Lattimore in 2017 (11th). In five combined seasons, they’ve knocked down 72 passes and earned three Pro Bowl bids. Lattimore was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

The program’s other first-round CBs this decade haven’t been as effective but are still valued veterans. Both Eli Apple (10th in 2016) and Gareon Conley (24th in 2017) were thrown into tough situations with rebuilding teams and have since left the franchises that drafted them. They each developed into starting corners for playoff teams after joining the Saints and Texans, respectively. Conley remains a key part of the Houston defense. Apple is looking for his third NFL home in five seasons after a contract agreement with the Raiders fell through.

Bradley Roby (31st in 2014) stands in between those two groups. He’s been a better defender than Apple or Conley, but not quite the Pro Bowl standout Ward or Lattimore has been in six seasons with the Broncos and Texans.

Those are five compelling reasons to trust a highly touted Ohio State alum in the first round this spring. It’s a track record the NFL clearly respects; every single starting cornerback the Buckeyes have fielded since 2013 has been drafted.

When you expand the school’s scope to safeties, the school’s influence grows. Over the past 10 years, only five schools have had two safeties drafted in the first two rounds of the draft. Ohio State, Florida, and Alabama are the only programs to produce both first- AND second-round safeties since 2010.

Unsurprisingly, both Malik Hooker (15th in 2017) and Vonn Bell (61st in 2016) have been solid starters through the early stages of their pro careers. Throw them into the mix and you’ve got a strong argument that no program deserves the “Defensive Back U” title more than Ohio State.

There are several reasons to believe in Okudah. He’s got NFL size and speed to back up his innate ability read and jump routes. He was a ballhawk cornerback and All-American who proved himself time after time against some of the college football’s top offenses.

But the biggest reason he may succeed in the NFL could be the program that groomed him. Okudah spent the first two seasons of his collegiate career playing alongside and learning from future NFL players. The Buckeyes, as is tradition, found a way to turn his five-star potential into lockdown power along the sideline.

Now he’s set to be the latest Ohio State star to make an easy jump from shutting down Big Ten wideouts to doing the same against NFL veterans.