COLUMBUS – On national signing day in February 2017, Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s football recruiting class for that year “exceptional.”
That assessment has been proved to be absolutely correct with players in the 2017 class like Chase Young, Jeffrey Okudah, J.K. Dobbins, Shaun Wade, Wyatt Davis, Josh Myers, Thayer Munford, Baron Browning, Pete Werner and Blake Haubeil being among the leaders on this season’s 12-0 Buckeyes team.
Even though he didn’t become a full-time starter until this season as a junior, Okudah is one of the most exceptional players in that exceptional recruiting class.
He is projected to be a first-round NFL draft choice. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay rates him the No. 4 pick in the 2020 draft.
Okudah was a 5-star recruit coming out of Grand Prairie, Texas, a Dallas suburb. He was rated the No. 1 cornerback recruit in the country and the No. 8 recruit overall.
OSU won a recruiting battle with Oklahoma, Florida State, Alabama, LSU, Georgia and other elite football programs to sign Okudah.
Okudah leads Ohio State in interceptions this season with three – one against Miami and two in the Nebraska game.
He was named first-team All-Big Ten on Tuesday and is a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the player voted the top defensive back in the country.
Only two Ohio State players have won the Thorpe Award – Antoine Winfield in 1998 and Malcolm Jenkins in 2008 – despite the Buckeyes having 10 other defensive backs who were first-round draft choices since 1997, four of them in the last three years.
Okudah could win an award Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley, Eli Apple, Denzel Ward, Bradley Roby, Nate Clements, Chris Gamble, Donte Whitner and Shawn Springs didn’t win.
Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley says Okudah deserves to be the third Buckeye to win the Thorpe Award..
“I believe Jeff is the best corner in the country. Jeff is as talented at corner as any player I’ve been around. I’m not taking anything away from the other corners. But what Jeff has done this year – maybe he doesn’t have the production because no one is really throwing him the ball – but when they do he’s keeping them from catching it and taking people out of the game,” Hafley said.
“I’d be disappointed if Jeff doesn’t win that award next week,” he said.
Okudah said, “It would be big just to be recognized just among the top defensive backs that have came through here. I think to be the third winner of the Thorpe would be really big not just for me, but for the whole program.
“For me, it’s really big to get that compliment from Coach Hafley. “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.”
The other two Thorpe Award finalists are Grant Delpit of LSU and J.R. Reed, of Georgia.
Okudah was one of three highly ranked Texans in the recruiting class of 2017, along with Dobbins and Browning, who chose to leave home and come to Ohio State to pursue their football dreams.
Okudah wrote a lengthy letter on the Players Tribune explaining his decision to come to Ohio State and expressing his love for his mother, Marie Okudah, who had raised him and his sister while battling lymphoma since he was two years old. His mother died in January 2017 a week after Okudah enrolled early at Ohio State.
Hafley, in his first year on Ohio State’s coaching staff, described Okudah this way in a preseason interview:
“He’s an exceptional athlete. He’s got great size, length and speed. He’s got great feet. What separates him from other people is his mindset. And that’s what the great ones have,” he said.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau