Leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft, The Post is breaking down the draft class by position in an 11-part series. Tomorrow: safeties.
The Ohio State defense gathered away from football for a relaxing movie night, but Jeff Okudah would not let his coordinator watch the screen.
“We literally sat there for two hours and he asked me questions about every NFL receiver — how he releases [off the line of scrimmage] and why,” Jeff Hafley told The Post. “That showed how much he loves football and how serious he is about how good he wants to be, where most college guys would’ve been hanging out with their buddies.”
Hafley parlayed one year as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator into being hired as Boston College’s head coach. His resume includes seven years as an NFL secondary coach around greats Ronde Barber, Joe Haden and Richard Sherman, and a college position coach for a young Darrelle Revis and Logan Ryan.
Their highlight films became Okudah’s daily appointment viewing at noon in his coach’s office. Because Hafley taught great cornerbacks, he understands why Okudah — unanimously projected as a top-five pick in the draft — is pegged as an immediate difference-maker and future All-Pro.
“The difference between the ones who have really successful careers and the great ones are the guys who know how to compete, how to practice, how to push themselves and how to take coaching,” Hafley said. “That’s Jeff right there.”
Like a true No. 1 cornerback, Okudah gave up his familiar spot on the outside and slid into the slot against Penn State to shadow projected second-round pick KJ Hamler.
“I wanted them to put me outside. They didn’t,” Hamler said. “Most definitely Jeff Okudah is the best opponent I went against.”
Okudah, 21, played in 27 games over his first two seasons (no redshirt) but waited his turn to start at the Defensive Backs Factory located in Columbus. Seven Buckeyes’ cornerbacks and safeties were picked in the past four drafts (five first-rounders) and an unequaled 10 cornerbacks are first-round picks since 1999.
“To me, he is what Stephon Gilmore was coming out, what Patrick Peterson was coming out,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “He is going to be expected to be one of the best cornerbacks in this league.”
Okudah played aggressively and still committed zero combined holding and defensive pass interference penalties (to go with 35 tackles, three interceptions and two forced fumbles) last season, as he reminded an ill-informed reporter who called his play sometimes “sloppy” at the scouting combine. Video of his sharp rebuttal went viral.
“Cut the tape on that again,” he scolded.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound former five-star recruit ran a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash and tied for the second-best vertical jump (41 inches) at the combine. Okudah’s smooth footwork, especially changing directions, is more common in smaller players, while his length suggests a slower runner. But he packages the best of both worlds.
Okudah credits Hafley for teaching him hand technique and the patience not to force plays
“Jeff is a really good tackler,” Hafley said. “For elite corners in the NFL, a lot of times you draft a guy and you are OK if he is just a serviceable tackler. He’ll throw his body in there. That’s important in the NFL, where the good coordinators are going to make the corners tackle every play.”
Okudah’s likely landing spots are Detroit — as a replacement for traded All-Pro Darius Slay, whether at pick No. 3 or slightly lower after a much-speculated trade — or the Giants at No. 4.
“In the NFL, you are going to get balls thrown on you and touchdowns caught on you, which he hasn’t had a whole lot of,” Hafley said. “He is going to have to mentally challenge himself to line up and do it over and over again at a high level. I believe it’s one of the hardest positions to play as a rookie.”
Case in point: Last year’s first cornerback drafted, DeAndre Baker (No. 30 pick), allowed one touchdown in three years at Georgia but was benched with shaken confidence as a Giants rookie.
Not to worry, Okudah’s mentor says.
“I think Jeff is a home-run pick,” Hafley said. “The way the game has gone and how good the receivers are, it’s very rare to find corners like him.”