Jeff Okudah is amid a breakout stretch.
In his first two seasons at Ohio State, despite teeming with talent and emerging as an NFL draft prospect, he had never intercepted a pass. But in the Buckeyes’ win last week at Nebraska, Okudah picked off two passes from quarterback Adrian Martinez.
The effort followed a performance the previous week against Miami University in which he snagged his first career interception.
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“He’s another year older and he's really embraced the style of defense,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.
The Buckeyes’ new scheme was implemented by Jeff Hafley, who is in his first full season as the defensive co-coordinator and secondary coach.
Hafley observed that Okudah acclimated during the offseason and expanded his knowledge.
“He's spending a lot of time listening to the why,” Hafley said. “He's starting to understand why certain routes are coming: 'When two does this, one's going to do that. When one does this, two's going to do that.' So he's seeing the game a little different and I think that slows it down for him. Mentally, he's becoming a better football player.”
One of Hafley’s sharpest plays last week came when he intercepted Martinez on Nebraska’s opening drive, undercutting a route run by receiver Wan’Dale Robinson. It was an instance in which he relied on both his recognition of the route and athleticism to catch up in time to make the play.
Against Michigan State on Saturday night, senior quarterback Brian Lewerke figures to be difficult to pick off, throwing 10 touchdowns to only one interception this season.
One of Hafley’s biggest changes with the secondary has been relying less on press-man coverage, in which defensive backs cover receivers in more one-on-one situations. Instead, he’s added zone coverages for a more diverse mix. It’s worked to the benefit of Okudah, among others.
“If I told you to go out and cover a guy every single play, I think eventually you get tired, right?” Hafley said. “I think it's allowed our corners to play more plays and it's given some of our corners a chance to make more plays.”