FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Before the Falcons broke for summer break, nearly every morning of the OTA period in Atlanta was the same for assistant head coach Jerry Gray. In the early morning hours of a new day, Gray came to expect to see Jeff Okudah walk into his office and sit down in an open chair in front of him.
Their morning conversations always seemed to go back to one topic, though. That topic not being Okudah's early-career injuries or his most recent season with the Detroit Lions. No, the conversation always went back farther, to Okudah's time at Ohio State.
The reason being that Gray wants to see that guy. That's the guy he wants to coach.
"I always talk to him about what he did at Ohio State because whatever he did there he had 31, 32 teams saying that this is the third best player in the NFL Draft. If I can get that guy to think like that? That's the guy I want," Gray said. "Whatever we need to do that, I want that guy. I am always trying to get that guy back because I want that guy."
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Gray knows he can't turn back the clock, but he can find ways to get the Okudah of years' past to emerge from within the player who sits before him in his office at the Falcons facility in 2023. The way to do that is to tap into the depths of Okudah's confidence as a cornerback. So, Gray finds himself going back, back before the injuries and the surgeries and the coaching changes in Detroit, back before Okudah was a No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Gray is going back to a time when Okudah was inevitable.
There's a reason Okudah was considered the best cornerback in the 2020 draft class. He was, unanimously, even with A.J. Terrell in the class, too. In college, Okudah was what draft evaluators deemed a complete cornerback. He was physical. He had the build. But more than anything, he had a confidence about him that made him stand out amongst a talented field of defensive backs.
The story that some people remember most about Okudah's confidence came at the 2020 NFL Combine, which concluded a couple weeks before the country went into lockdown in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. A reporter ask Okudah how he planned to clean up his tendency to get "sloppy" on the field. It was an off-putting and unfounded question that Okudah replied to by simply stating the facts: "I had zero pass interferences, zero holdings. So, cut the tape on again and I think you might see something else."
Okudah was an unanimous All-American in 2019, the first of Ohio State cornerbacks to earn the recognition. He was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe award and a First-Team All-Big Ten selection. In Ohio State's semifinal game against Clemson in the college football playoffs, Okudah was everywhere. He wasn't afraid to match up with any body type. Ohio State relied on Okudah, too, as they played in their man-to-man, single high safety look majority of the time. In the look, they basically gave Okudah free range to take on whoever caused the most problems.
College Okudah was fire and ice, fearless in a way draft evaluators took notice of. It's these elements of Okudah that Gray wants to coach up.
Despite what happened in Detroit, where Okudah could never really find the right rhythm because of injuries and coaching changes, Gray wants to remind Okudah that he can still be all that he was in college. The hand he was dealt has gotten Okudah away from what he was in his college days. It's a hand that has left Okudah in search of a fresh start, one Atlanta is giving him. But it's not a hand that Gray thinks has wiped away all that Okudah can be as a pro.
For Gray, he is quite pleased to be a part of this part of Okudah's journey as he works to unearth the player that dazzled him years ago at Ohio State.
"I don't care about Detroit. No offense to Detroit, but I don't coach him there. I coach him here in Atlanta, but I want the guy that I've seen at Ohio State," Gray concluded. "And if I can get that guy's mindset back, we'll have a great football player here in Atlanta and that's really what we're trying to do."