When cornerback Denzel Ward was flagged with targeting and ejected in the first half of the Buckeyes’ 62-14 win over Maryland on Saturday, it left Ohio State cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs with a decision.
Either he could scrap the three-man rotation that the Buckeyes have used since last season and just stick with Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield, or he could continue the rotation by inserting true freshman Jeff Okudah.
To no one’s surprise, he chose the latter and Okudah rotated in successfully and comfortably.
In the second half, Arnette was then ejected for targeting as well, which means that Okudah’s time in the rotation should continue on the road at night in Nebraska next Saturday as Arnette will have to miss the first half of that contest.
Even though Okudah has played here and there throughout the season on defense, this was his busiest outing and it was great preparation for next week as well.
“Yeah, he’s on a steady incline,” Urban Meyer said after the game. “He’s a true freshman, one of the top recruits in America, and we thought we’d get some production out of him. I know everybody is very excited about his future, and it’s time for him to go. And we’re obviously playing him. He’s part of the rotation now.”
As Coombs has said in the past, he’s not going to put somebody into the rotation if they aren’t as good as the guy he is replacing. At most places, a cornerback rotation is not a necessity, it is a luxury. At Ohio State, however, it has become the expectation.
“The reality is that at our position, in the course of the season, you need guys to play,” Coombs said in the days leading up to the Maryland game. “I remind guys in our room all the time.”
Watching film of last year’s Maryland game with his cornerbacks, Coombs reminded them that Damon Arnette was in the game as the fourth cornerback and they need that guy every year. It was a prescient teaching lesson because just a few days later, it was Okudah stepping in where he was needed.
“We gotta have that guy and Jeff’s gotta be that guy,” Coombs said. “The reality is we don’t have enough, we need to recruit some more and we need to have continued development.”
Okudah came to Ohio State as the No. 1 cornerback in the 2017 recruiting class, so high expectations arrived at the same time he did. Even before the Maryland game, Okudah had played more than any freshman under Coombs since he came to Ohio State.
He was well prepared for his first “starting” role, which is pretty rare for a true freshman.
“I think he’s really good,” Coombs said. “I don’t know about ‘rare.’ Rare for a freshman here. The great thing for Jeff is he came here in January. I don’t think he would have been able to do it necessarily – I don’t know that he wouldn’t have, but at the same time I think he works really hard. He’s going to be in there tonight after practice watching film. He was in there last night after practice watching film. He understands what it takes to be successful and he’s working really hard at it.”
And never once has Okudah felt entitled based on expectations and accolades.
“Entitlement doesn’t last very long here, as you can imagine, and certainly not in our room,” Coombs chuckled.
Okudah will now prepare with starter’s reps for the biggest game of his young career. His coaches are confident that he will be fine, and his teammates aren’t worried either.
“He did good,” linebacker Jerome Baker said of Okudah’s performance on Saturday. “I know there was a cover 2 where he broke up a play and he was so hyped and so amped up and I told him to get used to it. He’s definitely going to be fine. Anybody that knows Coach Coombs, he gets those guys ready to play. Just got to put that in their head that it’s their time to go in there and perform.”
If everything goes as planned, Ohio State will begin the Nebraska game with a three-man rotation at corner and end it with a four-man rotation, which sounds extravagant, yet is exactly what Coombs has been trying to get done from the very first day of spring practice.