Jeffrey Okudah has a 50-50 chance to show off in front of hometown fans at the start of the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 29.

If the coin flip goes Ohio State’s way and the Buckeyes defer to the second half, letting Southern California take the ball first, the OSU kickoff team would be front and center. Okudah, who has excelled on coverage in recent games, including the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin, would have a chance to make the first tackle of the night.

Okudah graduated from South Grand Prairie High School, just nine miles from the site of the game, AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

“It’s going to be hard to contain all that energy,” Okudah said. “But I would also look at it as a great opportunity to exert that energy on somebody else.”

That’s what he did down the stretch this season. Considered the No. 1 cornerback prospect in the country when he became part of Ohio State’s 2017 recruiting class, he learned to channel that talent into kick coverage when it became clear he wasn’t going to start at cornerback in year one.

“At first coming from high school I didn’t realize how serious special teams were,” Okudah said. “Then when I started watching film I saw Gareon Conley had to do it, I saw Denzel (Ward) had to do it, playing the same position I’m playing.”

Conley went on to become a 2017 first-round NFL draft pick as a cornerback; Ward might also be a first-rounder if he leaves after this, his junior season.

“It made me feel like that, hopefully years from now someone like me can be watching that film and thinking ‘I want to do what everyone else did.’ I just think it helps you buy in.”

More than that, “It’s kind of a forerunner to being a great corner at Ohio State,” cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said.

He said Okudah bought in more and more as the season progressed.

“His contributions on three special teams as well as his ability to prepare each week to play corner have been outstanding,” Coombs said.

That was especially evident after the Penn State game in which the Buckeyes gave up a touchdown return by Saquon Barkley on the opening kickoff. Okudah, who was the outside containment person, was moved inside the next week to the spot where Conley and then Ward had hunted down the returner in a more-aggressive fashion.

“I know when I’m on defense and I see a guy make a play on kickoff it kind sets the mood for the defense to get a three-and-out,” Okudah said. “Running down I just see red like a bull, and I’m just trying to hit that returner.”

As junior receiver Terry McLaurin said, under coach Urban Meyer, such attitude is the required rite of passage.

“It’s almost like humble beginnings. … I feel like the No. 1 thing that provides for you is hunger,” McLaurin said. “You come here as a four- or five-star (recruit) … and you just think everything is going to work out, you’re going to play your position right away.

“But playing special teams, and learning the impact that makes on the games … makes you feel you’re adding some value to the program. That feeling of adding value and that chip on your shoulder I feel like carries on into your future of competing for a spot.”


Listen to the BuckeyeXtra Football podcast: