Surprise, surprise: an Ohio State cornerback is set to be the first player at his position off the board in April. Though 2019 was a "down" year for the school in terms of producing cornerback talent, the Buckeyes have dominated the top of the draft over the past half-decade. Ohio State produced the first cornerback to be drafted in both 2017 (Marshon Lattimore) and 2018 (Denzel Ward), a feat no other school had accomplished since LSU had Patrick Peterson in 2011 and Morris Claiborne in 2012. Even in 2016, Eli Apple was the second cornerback off the board after Jalen Ramsey, who may very well have been the best cornerback prospect since Prime Time.
This year's elite Ohio State cornerback is Jeffrey Okudah, a three-year contributor and two-year starter who took over after Ward was drafted. Okudah is a dominant man coverage cornerback with the quickness and drive to thrive in press coverage -- a necessary skill set for any first-round cornerback, in my opinion. At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, Okudah is tall and heavy enough to match bigger receivers, while still being lean and nimble enough to keep up with shiftier wideouts.
While he did not run as fast at the NFL combine as Ohio State's previous two elite cornerbacks did, Okudah is cut from the same cloth in that he is a legitimate shutdown corner who can handle any kind of receiver and shadow an offense's No.1 all around the field if need be. It feels lazy to compare Okudah to other Buckeyes, but it should be no surprise that a school known as "DBU" can consistently identify and recruit the same kind of player all the time.
Okudah's feistiness and flawless technique when covering vertical stems is a good microcosm of his game. Whether playing a bail technique or press coverage, Okudah plays with a square, centered stance and rapid-fire foot speed, giving him the ease of motion to respond to any move a wide receiver tries to make to free himself on a vertical route. Okudah's transition from getting out of that stance and into "phase" with a receiver is as seamless as any.
This is textbook coverage against a go route. Okudah (bottom) starts pressed up to the line of scrimmage with his shoulders squared right at the receiver, ready to attack. Once the ball is snapped, Okudah staggers his feet a bit and tilts himself slightly toward the sideline, but never fully commits to the receiver since the receiver has yet to declare which shoulder he wants to attack. The receiver tries to give Okudah a little shake before attacking the outside shoulder and hitting the jets down the sideline. With Okudah in a comfortable, flexible position, though, the stud cornerback immediately mirrors the receiver's movement, sticks a hand into his chest while the receiver is trying to gain speed, then flips himself inside to stack himself over the receiver's inside shoulder. Okudah's position completely shuts out the receiver from cutting inside or getting vertical, which forces the quarterback to try to throw the back-shoulder to no avail.
This time, Okudah is executing the same technique, but is forced to respond to the receiver differently. In the previous clip, Okudah had to match the receiver trying to take off down the sideline. In this clip against Clemson, the receiver (top of the screen) is playing much more slowly after declaring his direction and begins looking back for the ball after only a few steps. Okudah wastes zero time in reading the receiver's intentions and starts to jam into the receiver's frame as much as he can. All the hand-fighting keeps the receiver occupied just enough for him to not be able to turn around and be comfortable in his attempt to catch the ball, ultimately leading to a drop and incompletion.
It's not just vertical play that defines Okudah's game, though. Since Okudah plays with a low, square stance and active feet, it is easy for him to entirely redirect his body and drive toward a new point in order to catch up with a breaking receiver. Even when Okudah is forced to flip his body around entirely, he shows off the coordination and acceleration to find himself right back in position to make a play on the ball.
Okudah (bottom) starts in a half-turn stance this play rather than being directly squared up with the receiver. Right when the ball is snapped, Okudah drifts slightly inside while shuffling up the field to cut off the receiver's inside shoulder. He is also reading the quarterback's eyes all the way throughout this shuffle. At about the 10-yard mark, Okudah tosses his right hand back to get a feel for the receiver's position, knowing the 10-yard mark is around the area where the receiver is going to make his break or continue vertically. Between the subtle grab at the receiver and watching the quarterback's eyes, Okudah recognizes the receiver breaking outside on a comeback route. Okudah's recognition allows him to turn around in almost perfect unison with the receiver before slamming his foot into the ground and driving toward the catch point to make a diving effort for the pass deflection.
In Ohio State's single-high defense, Okudah is almost always left to his own devices on the outside like this. Okudah has the technique, recognition, agility, and short-area explosiveness to keep up with any route that threatens down the field or toward the sideline. Sometimes all of those things get thrown out the window, though. When receivers run shallows, crossers, deep overs, and anything else that cuts from one side of the field to the other, at a certain point the route just becomes a foot race. Okudah does just fine there, too.
Okudah initially lines up as the outside corner to the offense's right, but just before the snap, Nebraska motion Okudah's receiver from right to left and slot him into the No. 3 (innermost) spot in a trips set. Okudah suddenly becomes responsible for the middle of the field, which isn't something he is used to. Nebraska snap the ball shortly after the motion and Okudah's receiver angles toward the middle of the hashes before breaking across to the other side of the field. Okudah senses the crosser and drapes himself over the receiver's back, keeping up with the receiver step-for-step with ease. Nebraska's quarterback forces an errant pass Okudah's way and pays for it. With how well he had smothered the receiver throughout the route, Okudah was right in position to punish the quarterback for throwing a poor ball.
Beyond the ability to run across the field, this play showcases Okudah's ability to shadow a receiver all over the formation, even into the slot. Only a handful of cornerbacks in the NFL truly have the prowess and versatility to shadow any receiver all over the field, but Okudah has the right blend of skills to do it. Like any young player, it may take a year or two for that skill set to come together in the NFL, but it would not be surprising if Okudah became one of the stickiest coverage defenders in football sooner rather than later.
Where coaches will really buy into Okudah, though, has nothing to do with his coverage skills. Sure, a cornerback's primary job is to lock down in coverage, but every coach loves a defensive back who is willing to get his jersey dirty. Okudah, in that respect, is a coach's dream. Precious few elite cover corners are willing to attack versus screens, scrambles, and run plays as fervently as Okudah. Every screen thrown Okudah's way looks like he is trying to recreate Sheldon Brown de-cleating Reggie Bush.
To me, a cornerback's tackling and attitude toward playing at the line of scrimmage does not affect his overall quality as a player so long as he can cover. Okudah is well into "tackling does not matter" territory for me. However, tackling ability is still a great cherry on top for any cornerback prospect, and Okudah makes it clear as day he wants to hit anyone who comes into his vicinity. If nothing else, plays like the two above show Okudah's willingness to do whatever it takes to keep his defense in an advantageous position.
Looking at Okudah's profile from the top down, there is no standout weakness. Okudah was an elite five-star recruit who started two seasons on a powerhouse defense. He declared early and will be just 21 years old during his rookie season. As an athlete, he checks every box and is particularly impressive with respect to his short-area burst. Okudah is also a man coverage corner by nature, which should always be the preferred style of cornerback prospect if you ask me. Even with regards to ball skills, Okudah racked up 17 passes defended and three interceptions in his two years as a starter.
There is not a single area on Okudah's profile that raises meaningful concern. Though Okudah is not quite the outstanding athlete Jalen Ramsey is, nor is he the ballhawk Marcus Peters is, he is a solid A- prospect across the board with all the right tools to be a shutdown cornerback in a couple of years. Assuming quarterback Joe Burrow and defensive end Chase Young are the first two picks in the draft, Okudah should be in play for every team picking third overall or later.