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How being curious helped Jeff Okudah become the Lions' top NFL draft pick

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Jeff Okudah's NFL draft profile (1:06)

Ohio State's Jeff Okudah can cover, catch, hit and tackle and is being called the most complete cornerback in the 2020 NFL draft. (1:06)

Almost every day his freshman year at Ohio State, Jeff Okudah, the Detroit Lions' top pick in the 2020 NFL draft, ended up in the same place. Sometimes it’d be before his Buckeyes practice and sometimes after schoolwork, practice and meetings. Every day, though, the session would come.

For at least a half hour, Okudah sat in the Ohio State film room with coaching intern V’Angelo Bentley and watched football. The sessions varied by the day. Some days would be good OSU practice plays. Other days it would be Okudah-specific. Others focused on kickoff coverage, where Okudah was playing at the time.

Okudah had all the physical attributes the Buckeyes wanted -- traits which helped make him the No. 3 overall pick. To turn athleticism into accolades, Okudah first needed to understand what, exactly, he was doing.

It started with those daily sessions where the college student questioned everything.

“He always wanted to know why,” said Bentley, now an assistant at Penn State. “And what I like to say is if you know how, you’ll always have a job. If you know why, you can be the boss. As we were going through tape, we were watching certain things and we were going through releases.

“He was good at, ‘OK, if I get this release, I’ll probably play it like this.’ And trying to get the opponent to kind of play it that way.”

Like many high school players making the transition to college, Okudah hadn’t watched tape at the same level he needed to now. So anything Bentley offered, Okudah accepted.

Okudah wanted to understand it. Bentley had credentials -- he played at Illinois and then briefly with the New England Patriots before entering coaching. By the end of his freshman year, Okudah understood how to pick up what he needed on his own.

“Eventually I was able to start watching it by myself,” Okudah said. “I just kind of fell in love with the process and how we started seeing patterns and they matched up in practice.

“It’s like you start [seeing] games slower and slower.”

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1:24

Was Jeff Okudah the right pick for the Lions?

Michael Rothstein breaks down why the Lions made the right choice in taking Jeff Okudah third overall in the 2020 NFL draft.

On Mondays he would watch an opposing offense’s three- and four-receiver sets. Then he’d go into practice the next day and drill it. Throughout the week he’d study individual receivers to understand the route concepts he was expecting. He'd try to anticipate his opponent’s moves.

Okudah started breaking down film like the pros would. It turned the physical skills then-defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs saw in Okudah as a high school student into a more complete defensive back who caused problems for every receiver and quarterback he faced.

“[Okudah] was really anal about having perfect technique every play. Like reevaluating that every time,” Bentley said.

Jeff Hafley took over as the Buckeyes’ defensive backs coach in 2019, Okudah’s junior year, coming from the San Francisco 49ers and All-Pro Richard Sherman.

He knew of the physical traits Okudah possessed before he met him. Then they talked. Hafley saw the same things in Okudah he did from the high-level NFL corners he coached: a mindset that you either have or you don’t.

“Just a different mentality,” said Hafley, now Boston College’s head coach. “Whether the whole team was over watching a movie and hanging out and he’d be sitting there talking to me about NFL wide receivers and releases and how he was going to have to guard them and who was the best receiver and how did I coach this DB and why."

Okudah always wanted to talk ball and watch film -- even on offseason Saturday mornings. Okudah would be at Hafley’s office, calling to see if they could watch more tape.

“It just always was questions, always thinking about the National Football League, always thinking about how to get better,” Hafley said.

In Okudah, Hafley found another football-obsessive. Hafley couldn’t tell you any movies the team watched together, but he could tell you the receivers they discussed sitting in the back corner of the same room. By the end of the season, Hafley felt he was talking to another coach instead of a 21-year-old learning the game.

At one of the hardest positions to make the transition from college to the NFL, Okudah will undoubtedly have inconsistencies. It’s then he can rely on what he’s already prepared for.

“He has the mindset to not let it affect him and get to him,” Hafley said. “He’s going to have to because he’s going to get tested by the good quarterbacks and receivers early on. He’s going to get balls caught on him. He’s going to give up touchdowns and that’s OK.

“That’s life as a corner. He has the mindset to push through that.”

Shawn Springs showed up on Ohio State’s campus last season and met with Okudah and fellow future first-round pick Damon Arnette. It’s something Springs, the last cornerback to go in the top three in an NFL draft in 1997, had done with Buckeyes defensive backs before.

He hadn’t been back in a few years. This was his first time meeting Okudah. He watched every Saturday. Okudah had another opportunity to ask questions.

“He was just like, ‘Man, what do you see? How do I get better,’" Springs said. “That humble spirit of just, man, I’m trying to learn, get better, play the part, be the best I can be. And, you know, then you realize you have a kid who has an attitude and willingness to get better. Then you see a 6-foot-1, lean, athletic, strong kid who is competitive and is going to get after it.

“Who has no problem if you say, ‘You got that man out there, go get him.’"

Springs was similar as a rookie in Seattle. He wasn’t concerned about the athleticism -- he knew he had that, just like Okudah does now. Like Okudah, he wasn’t afraid to take on any receiver. Springs said Okudah needs to improve playing the ball, but he can play man, zone and can press. He can stick with any type of receiver the Lions ask him to line up against.

Okudah might not end up on No. 1 receivers in the NFL right away -- that’s a tough ask for any rookie corner, especially this season without a spring of acclimation -- but that’s the eventual expectation.

“He’s been the No. 1 corner coming out of high school, the No. 1 corner coming out of college and he’s going to be in the top five corners in the league within two years,” Springs said. “I mean, it isn’t going to be a shock to anybody. To him. There’s a reason he was the No. 1 corner.”

Over the past few months, Okudah reached out to Jalen Ramsey, Stephon Gilmore, Tyrann Mathieu and Darius Slay to ask questions. With his history and his quest to understand not only the how of everything but the why as well, this is no surprise.

“[I'm] just learning their process,” Okudah said. “Learning things they’ve done earlier that they wish they could have done differently and just kind of getting a feel of what the NFL’s all about.”

Okudah has tried to prepare the best he could for everything. It’s been how he reached this point -- how he worked out, how he prepared for his rookie season and even the combine.

That included, before the combine, taking an impromptu trip to Boston for one more day with Hafley.

“Who does that? I never heard of that,” Hafley said. “The kid flew out on a Friday and spent all day Saturday with me working out and going over film and wanting to know what the combine and what the interview was going to be.

“It all goes back to he wants to be the best at whatever he does.”