COLUMBUS — Jeff Okudah is a first-team all-Big Ten cornerback for Ohio State.
No surprise there when the league announced the list on Tuesday night.
But what the junior didn’t win made more headlines. Although he is the only Big Ten player named as a finalist for the Thorpe Award, given to the country’s top defensive back, Okudah didn’t win the award for best defensive back in his own league.
Maybe that doesn’t matter. Antoine Winfield Jr. is a great player who had a good year for Minnesota, while Okudah and the Buckeyes are likely on their way to a College Football Playoff appearance. As for the Thorpe, Okudah’s position coach Jeff Hafley had some strong words about Okudah and the caliber of player he is.
“I believe Jeff Okudah is the best corner in the country,” Hafley said. “As that Thorpe Award comes near, Jeff is as talented as any player, corner that I’ve been around. And I’m not taking that away from the other corners, but what Jeff Okudah has done this year — maybe he doesn’t have the production because no one’s throwing him the ball, but when they do, they’re not catching it. He’s taking guys out of the game.
“I can’t say enough about the whole [defensive back] group in general, but I’d be disappointed if Jeff didn’t win that award next week. I do believe, and I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t mean it, he deserves to win that award.”
Okudah has a good chance to win the Thorpe Award, an award only two Buckeyes — Antoine Winfield in 1998 and Malcolm Jenkins in 2008 — have won before him. The reason he can win it? Hafley is right.
Okudah can take wide receivers out of games. When Okudah moved inside two weeks ago to guard KJ Hamler, he shut him down. Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins had two catches against the Buckeyes. Neither were on Okudah, who had a deflection when defending Collins.
That’s just part of what Okudah does for Ohio State.
“In January, we set a goal,” Okudah said. “That was to bring BIA [Best in America] back. That’s what we’ve strived to accomplish the whole season. Getting the accolades, being ranked No. 1 pass defense, whatever it is, it’s just kind of been surreal just how the season has played out.”
The season has obviously played out well for Okudah. The Buckeyes are No. 1 in the country and have a good chance to play for a national title. Okudah is likely to be a top-five draft pick in the NFL Draft if he chooses to leave. His two-interception game against Nebraska was an impressive showing, but since then, teams in the Big Ten have shied away from throwing his way.
It doesn’t matter if a quarterback throws his way 15 times per game or zero, Okudah is working on his craft. Michigan tried to challenge him early in the first quarter, and Okudah reminded the Wolverines that he is the best in the country at what he does. In other games, it was hard to see Okudah’s impact due to a lack of targets.
But he’s making a difference.
“I challenge Jeff every week, because if you are going to be the best, you have to go out and prove it no matter who you go up against,” Hafley told Lettermen Row. “I certainly did. He knew those were good wide receivers [against Michigan], and he had to get after it.”
Well, he got after it. And he made Michigan think twice — and three times — about throwing his way when he broke up back-to-back Shea Patterson pass attempts to force a Wolverines punt.
After 12 games and a massive season, Okudah has had his share of coaching moments from Hafley. They have formed a bond, and Hafley has helped Okudah become the type of corner that can be considered the best in the country.
“For me, it’s really big to get that complement from Coach Hafley,” Okudah said. “I know he has seen his fair share of [defensive backs], so for him to just speak so highly of the way he thinks I played, it’s really big for me. It makes me want to continue to work and make him proud.”
Of course it would have been nice to be recognized as the best defensive back in the Big Ten. That’s a cool accomplishment. But the coaches who vote on it wouldn’t throw his way because they saw his skillset. The media who vote on it didn’t get to see Okudah make plays because the coaches were too afraid to throw it at him.
The Big Ten awarded its award to a worthy candidate, just not Jeff Okudah. Maybe the national award will correct that mistake.
“It would be big just to be recognized just among the top [defensive backs] that have came through here,” Okudah said. “Winfield, Malcolm Jenkins both won the award. I think just top be the third winner of the Thorpe would be really big not just for me, but for the whole program.”