The move was unprecedented, and it hasn’t been made since.
Sure, freshmen have been promoted to the varsity team at South Grand Prairie, the suburban Dallas high school that sits along the I-20 corridor in one of high school football’s hot zones. But coach Brent Whitson had never called up a ninth-grader this early, before Zero Week, before his team had sniffed a game.
It was August 2013 and preseason practices had just begun in the scorching Texas heat. Jeff Okudah sat across from Whitson, perhaps sensing how special he really was in this moment.
“I am going to be a first-day draft choice,” the teenager told him.
Whitson had heard others make similar bold proclamations before. But Okudah was different. Heck, he looked different — big, rangy and more athletic than other kids his age. Then there was his maturity, which also made him seem unusual.
Whitson had watched Okudah work with the freshman team and immediately saw the raw talent, which is why he was meeting face-to-face with the kid.
But Whitson would reserve judgment about Okudah’s potential until he saw him play alongside South Grand Prairie’s best.
Ten minutes after Okudah took the field with his older teammates, Whitson sidled up to defensive coordinator Laban DeLay and offered up the same prediction the newcomer had just made.
“Hey,” he said. “that guy right there is going to be a first-round draft pick.”
All these years later, Whitson let out a laugh as he shared the story, knowing the prophecy proved true. Not only had Okudah been selected by the Detroit Lions with the No. 3 overall choice Thursday, he had also became the highest-drafted cornerback in the past 23 years.
Those who wanted to dramatize the moment would have feigned surprise and said this outcome was unbelievable. But really, it wasn’t. In fact, it all made sense. Okudah had the physical ability, drive, work ethic and environment to develop into a top-line player.
As Whitson said the first time he laid eyes on him, “It was just so obvious.”
Jeff Hafley would attest to that. Soon after arriving at Ohio State last year for his only season with the Buckeyes, he met Okudah.
The first impression was a lasting one.
“Looks like a made-up video game character,” said Hafley, now Boston College’s head coach. “He’s got the size, the length, the speed and crazy acceleration for how big he is. When I got there, I saw it. I saw it on tape.”
Hafley had just been hired as the Big Ten champion’s co-defensive coordinator after supervising various secondaries in the NFL, where he tutored the likes of Richard Sherman, Ronde Barber and Darrelle Revis — superior talents who had a relentless desire to excel.
Even though Okudah had yet to become a regular starter at Ohio State, he reminded Hafley of them. At the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, they holed up for hours and talked X’s-and-O’s. Hafley taught him the nuances of press-man coverage and route concepts that helped Okudah thrive in the zone schemes the Buckeyes were implementing.
“All he wants to do is soak up knowledge,” Hafley said. “He learned the game, he learned the why. He studied it.”
It was all part of Okudah’s greater plan, the one he had begun plotting back in Texas.
Nothing he had done to this point had been by chance.
Back when he was a five-star recruit with scholarship offers from every elite program in the country, he picked Ohio State because he knew the school’s track record of sending defensive backs to the pros. Eli Apple had just been picked in the first round. Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley would soon follow in Apple’s footsteps.
“Ohio State emphasizes competing in everything you do,” Okudah said. “Just having that background always leads to competing, competing, competing.”
And Okudah never backed down from a challenge. Sometimes he’d even seek one out. The week of the Penn State game, he buzzed Hafley’s ear and told him he wanted to line up in the slot against K.J. Hamler, the speedy Penn State wideout who had torched Michigan and Minnesota. Okudah had only played there sparingly during the season and Hafley wondered why the cornerback would want to take this kind of risk when it was already certain he’d be a top pick.
But even Halfley couldn’t have been that surprised.
This was a guy who longed to win the Jim Thorpe Award, which is presented to the nation’s top defensive back. He made a screenshot of the award statue the wallpaper for his phone before he had ever intercepted a pass in college, before he became a feared defensive back, before he had even played as a full-time starter.
Okudah was a finalist for the award.
“And he should have won it,” Hafley said emphatically. “It just shows you. He does not want to be ordinary. He wants to be the best. That’s just the guy’s mindset and it’s probably been that way forever.”
Clay Mack can attest to that.
There was a fire that burned in Okudah, Mack observed.
It was noticeable the first time they crossed paths when Okudah was in eighth grade. Where it came from is uncertain. There were hints though. The young football player’s mother, Marie, was stricken with lymphoma and Okudah said after she died three years ago that his work ethic was derived in part from the experience of seeing her battle with cancer as she put herself through nursing school.
Conscious of boundaries, Mack didn’t want to pry. But he was intrigued by this kid who kept showing up at his training sessions after initially tagging along to one with another prospect from Grand Prairie, Kyle Flud.
Mack, who had played at Mississippi State, had been at the forefront of the movement of specialized coaching at the youth level — shepherding defensive backs and linebackers from Dallas-area high schools to college programs around the country. Okudah latched on to him and their relationship blossomed. During the season, Mack and Okudah would meet at least three times a week. When the Friday night lights went dark in the winter and spring, they’d get together even more frequently. Mack helped Okudah make the transition first from linebacker to safety and then safety to cornerback.
“He said, ‘I am willing to do whatever,’ ” Mack recalled.
The sacrifices, Okudah understood, wouldn’t be made in vain because the dream of reaching the NFL wasn’t some ridiculous fantasy. Here, in this suburban enclave, it was completely realistic.
He had met players from the area who had either made the pros or were on their way, soliciting advice from Aqib Talib and Jamal Adams. He faced off against elite talent that populated the roster at district rivals Cedar Hill, DeSoto and Duncanville. In the same secondary he occupied at South Grand Prairie, he played opposite of Wisconsin’s Caesar Williams and in front of Iowa State’s Greg Eisworth. The football culture in this pocket of Texas was second to none and Okudah was determined to take advantage of it.
“Jeff was seeing the best there was in the country, not just the best there was in Texas, but the best there was in the country,” Whitson said. “You have to get better. If you don’t get better, then you get left behind. Jeff was not going to get left behind.”
Instead, he knew his destiny.
As Whitson watched Okudah transform from a raw freshman to a top recruit to one of the best college players to the No. 1 cornerback prospect in the draft, he saw all of it coming. It was right there in front of his eyes — from the moment Okudah made that bold prediction.
“Everything,” Whitson said, “was working toward what happened Thursday night.”