Lions CB Jeff Okudah needs reps as he returns from Achilles injury

Jeff Okudah has worked hard on getting his speed back after tearing his Achilles in the season opener a year ago.

The Lions cornerback traveled around the United States and ventured into Canada seeking out the best specialists to help get him back on the football field.

Friday night’s preseason opener could be a big step in the process. For many players coming back from a lengthy injury taking that first hit is big. But it’s more than that for Okudah who the Lions drafted with the third overall pick in 2020.

“That’s always big making that first play, but I think it’s getting out there and participating just being out there with the crowd’s energy. I think that will be big for me as well,’’ Okudah said after Wednesday’s training camp.

He said as far as physically he thinks everything has gone smoothly in training camp.

“I’m my toughest critic but trying not to be too hard on myself after not playing in 11 months,’’ Okudah said. 

The cornerback is listed behind Amani Oruwariye and Will Harris on the depth chart that coach Dan Campbell calls “unofficially official.”

“The way I approach it, I always feel like there’s competition so even when there wasn’t really a competition I always take everything as competition,’’ OKudah said. “I always demanded that out of myself.”

Campbell said they have no concern about Okudah’s Achilles.

“Physically he looks great. He needs reps. He needs reps, he needs to play, I mean that’s the thing that we can never lose sight of. I mean, he’s going into Year Three and he really hasn’t played. I mean he just hasn’t had significant playing time,’’ Campbell said.

In his rookie season Okudah struggled through a variety of injuries and only played nine games. In 2021 he was lost for the season in the opener.

Friday night’s preseason game should provide a clue about where Okudah stands with the regular season about a month away.

(The Lions open the preseason at 6 p.m. on Friday against the Atlanta Falcons at Ford Field.)

Five things to know about Lions CB Amani Oruwariye

While Friday was just the third day of training camp, already Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell sees a difference in Amani Oruwariye, the oldest cornerback on the roster at age 26. 

“I tell you what from this time last year, he feels like a guy who understands what he’s capable of. He understands what he’s good at, what he can do, what he needs to work on. He’s a pro right now, he’s practicing like a pro, he did in the spring,’’ Campbell said before the start of Friday’s practice. “There’s a comfort level and he’s very confident and it’s good to see.”

A big difference from a year ago is now the Lions — with Campbell in his second season — know what they have in Oruwariye.

“We feel like, alright it’s early in camp and all of that, he’s got to prove it again. He knows that and has to continue to improve, but we feel pretty good where he is in that spot. It was good to see him grow and develop at the rate he did. He was having a hell of a year before the injury, I would say he picked up right where he left off in the spring and even the first two days,’’ Campbell added.

Five things to know about Oruwariye early in training camp:

1. He embraces his role as a leader as the oldest corner on the roster and even noted that he has found one gray hair. “Agewise, there’s a lot of guys around my age, guys who have been here with me. Just from experience, I’ve played a lot with different coaches. I do feel a sense of responsibility to make sure the guys are ready to go and make sure everyone is prepared and working like a professional every single day,’’ Oruwariye said on Friday.

2. Oruwariye shared his reaction to Campbell calling him a pro. “I take pride in it, it means I come to work everyday and be the best teammate I can be everyday and try to be the best Amani I can be everyday for my teammates,’’ the corner said.

3. Last season Oruwariye was sidelined for the final three games with a thumb injury. He was missed. He led the Lions with six interceptions — no one else had more than one. Three of his picks came in the last five games he played. He was on a roll. “It was amazing. I was living a dream, making the plays I could make for the defense. Obviously we didn’t get the wins we wanted, but I’m hoping if I continue to have that production and I can rally the guys around me to continue building off that, we’ll start getting the Ws,’’ Oruwariye said

4. No one could be more pleased about the emphasis the team put on improving the pass rush in the offseason, including drafting Aidan Hutchinson with the second overall pick. “It’s amazing. Those guys just make it easier on us. Obviously we still have a job to do but knowing that we’ve got guys who can win the one-on-one battles up front consistently it’s going to affect our defense tremendously,’’ Oruwariye said. “It will affect how we see offenses, our timing of how routes develop because we know we only have to guard four seconds instead of five seconds. It’s everything,’’ Oruwariye said.

5. Either Will Harris or Jeff Okudah will likely start opposite Oruwariye when the season starts. Harris made the move from safety to corner during the 2021 season and Okudah’s 2021 season ended on opening day when he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon. “Will stepped up huge for us last season, it’s hard to go unnoticed. He just is Mr. Consistent, Mr. Know-it-all. He’s played every position on the defense. He’s just out there making sure he can perfect his craft at corner, it’s new to him. I’m helping him out a lot. He’s learning and competing,’’ Oruwariye said.

“Jeff is just gaining that confidence to be out there and play and put together a good camp. I told him to take it one day at a time and obviously I’m still always there. If you need advice for anything, for things I see, talk to me, we can sit down and watch film. But for him it’s just gaining confidence and the courage to go out there and do what he does best. We all know what he’s capable of us, it’s just putting it out there.’’

NOTE: Lions training camp continues on Saturday. The team then has Sunday off. Monday will be the first day they’re in pads and also the first day camp is open to the general public.

Lions confident CB Jeff Okudah will be ready to go for training camp

Perhaps one of the happiest Lions to be participating — on a limited basis — in OTAs is cornerback Jeff Okudah who tore his Achilles tendon in September’s season opener and was forced to miss the final 16 games.

“I’m enjoying to the fullest extent you can enjoy something. For me, I couldn’t walk to the restroom in September, I had to retrain my whole body,’’ Okudah said after Thursday’s practice. “To be able to be out here and do drills, whatever I can do, is a blessing because there wasn’t a guarantee I’d be out here so I’m taking in everything and enjoying every moment.’’

Okudah won’t exactly say if he’ll be ready for training camp in July.

 “I’ve thought about that question for a long time,’’ he said. “The best way to describe it is I’m going to be ready when it’s time to be ready. I’m confident I’ll be ready when it’s time to be ready.’’

Got that?

Lions coach Dan Campbell takes it a step farther. He does expect the cornerback, the third overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft, to be ready to go for camp.

“I’m very encouraged. We know the surgery went well and just the rehab process, like I feel really good about this, just where he’s come and where the injury is at. I feel like he’s right where he needs to be,’’ Campbell said on Thursday.

Okudah and Campbell both mentioned the importance of being in the right mental frame of mind.

The cornerback talked to athletes who had been through Achilles surgery to find out what to expect.

“They gave me the confidence that the Achilles will be the least of your worries. It will be about getting back mentally and taking care of the rest of your body,’’ Okudah said.

He has been attacking rehab since he got the foot in an orthopedic boot in November.

“We’re not worried about Jeff’s movement skills. He’s going to be able to move. You watch him with his footwork and the things he’s doing, he can do all that. That is real important right now, just continue his growth mentally. Him to be able to get the walk-through reps and then just to get the film study, it’s big for him,’’ Campbell said. “So it’s good to have him here. Then when the time’s right, to go full speed when we get him in camp, he’ll be ready.’’

Okudah, who played in nine games his rookie season, said it has not been hard to stay mentally focused through the rehab.

“My drive just took over. I’ve been hungry like I haven’t ate in years,’’ Okudah said. “That hunger has been inside of me since the injury, even before the injury, so I’ve had that feeling for probably two years, that hunger. I’m ready to go out there and play to the best of my ability.’’

The 23-year-old cornerback said his mental state prior to the injury helped him be in a good place.

“Obviously when you have a big injury you’re going to be down for a little bit, but being around people who have love for you,’’ Okudah said. “They picked me back up, to be here today to be in a great mental spot. I’m blessed.’’