Months before Jeff Okudah’s breakout junior season at Ohio State, a film session convened with Jeff Hafley.
It was January 2019 when the pair met to review the previous season’s games.
Hafley, who had just been hired as the Buckeyes’ defensive co-coordinator and secondary coach, selected cut-ups from each time a quarterback threw a pass to a receiver covered by Okudah.
For an hour, they went over every target.
"That's the first coach who had ever done that for me," Okudah said.
Hafley spoke with confidence as he provided feedback. A former defensive backs coach in the NFL, he had tutored All-Pro cornerbacks that included Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman. He told Okudah he’d improve.
The Ohio State cornerback believed him.
"I just listened to him talk," Okudah said last fall, recalling their first meeting. "When you play football long enough, you're around guys where you know if they know what they're talking about. I knew after that conversation that he knew exactly what he was talking about."
Okudah ultimately shined as a junior, paving the way for him to become one of the top selections in the NFL draft, which is scheduled to begin with the first round Thursday. Some observers forecast him to be picked as high as third overall by the Detroit Lions.
In the lead-up to the draft, Okudah has been quick to credit Hafley, who arrived at a critical time in his development before leaving to become the coach at Boston College. Okudah noted that Hafley helped him with his technique and footwork during their season together and furthered his understanding of receivers’ route concepts.
The improvement came as Hafley put in a cover 3 defense, that included a zone scheme. The Buckeyes had relied almost entirely on man-to-man on defenses that were implemented during former coach Urban Meyer’s tenure.
"Man-to-man is just more so follow your guy around and don't let him catch the ball," Okudah said. "Zone is put your eyes on the quarterback and make plays on the football."
At the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February, he remarked, "Without Coach Hafley, I might not be in this position I am right now."
Prior to last season, Okudah had not been a full-time starter, largely a rotational cornerback. He had no interceptions through his sophomore season.
But with tightened fundamentals and seizing a larger role in the secondary, the former blue-chip recruit developed into a unanimous All-American. He intercepted three passes and broke up nine more. While targeted 53 times, he gave up only 23 completions (43.4 percent) and one touchdown, according to Pro Football Focus.
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah considers Okudah to be one of the best prospects in the draft and has projected him to be the third player picked Thursday, noting his size, athleticism and playmaking instincts.
"I always say with corners, if you can't find the ball in college, most times those guys can't find the ball in the NFL," Jeremiah said. "This kid can find and play the football. He's got really good awareness."
The emergence of Okudah was not a surprise for Ohio State’s coaching staff.
A native of Grand Prairie, Texas, after moving from New Jersey in elementary school, Okudah was the second-highest-ranked prospect in the program’s acclaimed 2017 recruiting class, considered a five-star recruit, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. Only defensive end Chase Young, the projected second overall pick, was ranked higher among the incoming Buckeyes.
The timing had been right for a breakout.
"I think a lot of guys make that leap from year 2 to year 3," Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said. "You see it a lot. It's with leadership. It's with his approach. It's with a lot of things. I think it just all came together for (Okudah). Having Jeff Hafley, they really hit it off. His approach. Being three years into the program. All those things, just kind of added up for him."
As he moves toward the NFL, with the hope of becoming one of the league’s top cover corners, Okudah’s hope is that things will keep coming together.