After a regular season filled with inconsistency from the Buckeyes on both sides of the ball, the last two games showed us what this team is truly capable of. Defensively, we were pleasantly surprised by a dominating performance against that team up North. We saw a defense that finally played with fundamentals and in tandem. In the Big Ten Championship, there were some of the same problems that we witnessed in the unit’s worst performances of the year. However, there were still flashes of dominance and signs of improvement. Going into the Rose Bowl and next season, this defense carries some supreme young talent. There are two sophomores that I believe helped transform the secondary over these past two games. Former Five-star recruits Shaun Wade and Jeffrey Okudah put together their two best performances to date and showed us why they are worthy of becoming household names.
The commitments Wade and Okudah were monumental wins for the Ohio State staff during the 2017 recruiting cycle. Wade was the second highest rated corner in the country by 247 Sport’s composite rankings and was sought after by every blue blood program in the nation. His spot in the class was not always certain as Alabama made a strong push. But ultimately he made the right decision by sticking with his commitment and enrolling early in 2017. After sitting out his freshman year due to injury, Wade came into this year with the skillset and versatility to play in the slot, at safety or even on the outside if the coaching staff needed be. Wade spent most of the middle part of the season playing safety but with the emergence of Brendon White, it became clear that his skillset as a coverage player would be maximized as a full-time slot corner in the Buckeyes’ nickel defense. The importance of this position in Schiano’s scheme cannot be understated. It takes an athletic and refined cover corner to play press man against slot receivers in spread formations. After all, it is also where Denzel Ward started out during his second year on campus in 2016.
Jeffrey Okudah edged out Wade in the 247 composite rankings for cornerbacks and was the 8th ranked player overall in the class of 2017. Okudah was able to stay healthy in his first year on campus and made his first start in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl. Okudah started this season in the rotation for outside cornerback due to the presence of experienced starters Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield. After being sidelined with an injury earlier this season, Okudah came back and proved why he is the Buckeyes’ best cover corner.
Okudah possesses an elite physical skill set for a corner. He has plus size standing at 6’1” and possessing incredible change of direction ability. His gifted footwork and flexibility allow him to change direction with ease while his explosiveness allows him to recover well. However, the biggest asset to his game may be his technical refinement and understanding of different coverage techniques.
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Above you will see Okudah lined up at the bottom of the screen in a press-man alignment. At the snap, the Northwestern receiver automatically commits outside so Okudah keeps his inside leverage and decides not to be aggressive off the release. This is likely because of how transparent the receiver is with his intentions to get downfield. Okudah knows that he cannot be stacked if he shoots his inside hand on the inside shoulder of the receiver once he transitions up the sideline. This seamless use of his hands combined with the excellent transitioning skills of his lower body places him in the perfect position to defend this fade route. By the time the ball is released Okudah remains physical and locates the ball. The ball is thrown over the shoulder with no chance of completion due to Okudah’s understanding of the throw’s trajectory and his physicality (within the rules of the game). If Thorson were to throw this back shoulder it would have needed to be a perfect throw because of Okudah’s positioning and the limited space he gave to work with. This first clip is a prime example of how Okudah makes life easier for himself by understanding how to utilize his physical skill set.
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Just another example of Okudah combining smart technical play with his incredible athletic ability. Here he is lined up at the top of the screen in a press-man alignment. Again, at the snap, the Northwestern receiver takes a hard outside release. Okudah again shoots his inside hand onto the inside shoulder of the receiver which proves important for the latter part of this rep. After releasing outside for about four steps, the Northwestern receiver works inside and attempts to create separation by getting Okudah’s inside hand off his shoulder. However, Okudah has other plans. He seamlessly transitions inside with sharp and explosive footwork combined with exceptional hip fluidity. He maintains contact by using his outside hand as well as his inside hand to control Skowronek and as the ball is released he is in the perfect position to defend the pass. Okudah’s reactionary skills cannot be understated. He executes the proper technique in a split second allowing him to do his job as an inside leverage defender. A hard rep nonetheless, but Okudah makes this look easy.
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On arguably the most crucial play of the game for the Ohio State defense, Northwestern faces a critical fourth and seven. A stop here for the Buckeyes would all but end the game. Okudah is at the top of the screen in an off coverage alignment. Ohio State corners are rarely tasked with a non-press alignment, but due to the situation, Okudah is lined up 9 yards off the line of scrimmage with inside leverage. Off coverage is difficult to play because it relies on a cornerback’s ability to click and close combined with his recognition skills. At the snap Okudah is patient, not gaining too much ground because of the sticks. He also takes a couple shuffle steps inside to keep his leverage. Skowronek stems his route inside for the first three steps of his route, works more parallel and then breaks inside. As soon as he starts to break down, Okudah explodes taking an inside angle and adjusts his path as Skowronek works flat inside. As the ball is thrown, Okudah positions himself perfectly to defend the pass by taking a sharp angle. You can argue that the pass was a tad late by Thorson, but this is textbook off coverage from a corner that plays press man and bail technique for the majority of his snaps.
The progress that Okudah has made from last year is nothing to brush off. For one it proves that Okudah takes the technical side of the game very seriously and that he knows that his athletic gifts alone will not make him an elite corner. It is also a good sign for first-year Ohio State cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson, who has continued to implement proper technique on the outside.
Moving on to Shaun Wade; it is also clear to me that he has seen technical improvement within his play during the course of this season. He too possesses great athletic gifts and length, standing at 6’1” with great hip fluidity, fast feet and ball skills. One thing that he has improved on is his open field tackling.
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On this crucial third and nine during the game, Wade is lined up inside leverage four yards off the line of scrimmage towards the top of the screen in the slot. Post snap the Buckeyes’ defense is in cover three zone with Wade widening to the flats. The Wolverines receivers to the field side release inside so Wade’s only threat is Karan Higdon who runs a simple swing route to the field. Shea Patterson makes an ill-advised throw to Higdon and Wade makes them pay. As soon as the ball is released Wade explodes to Higdon’s landmark. His explosive power combined with a textbook lowering of the shoulder and the driving of the legs creates a monster hit and forces an “incompletion”.
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Later in the fourth quarter, the game is clearly out of hand for The Wolverines yet Wade is still out for blood. Pre-snap Wade is in a press alignment over the slot receiver at the top of the screen. Post snap the defense is again in a cover three zone, this time Wade plays more to the curl zone but gains width. On the bootleg, Milton looks to Mckeon in the flats but Wade is ready to come up and make the tackle. At 195 pounds Wade knocks the 240 pound Mckeon straight back into the ground without even having to wrap up.
It is clear that Wade can play a physical brand of football, but he also has plus coverage skills to match up with receivers in the slot.
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As the current Nickel corner in the Buckeyes’ defense, Wade is often tasked with covering slot receivers in man coverage when the defense is in cover one. Lined up in a press alignment over the slot receiver at the top the of the screen, Northwestern runs a common route concept to attack this single high cover one defense, the slot fade. This effectively allows the offense to have an isolated matchup in the slot with plenty of room for an outside release. It is also important to note that the boundary safety who is playing center field has an almost insurmountable amount of yardage to cover when trying to give help over the top. At the snap, receiver Nagel takes a hard outside release, his intent is to use the space he has on the outside to stack Wade and give Thorson space to throw the ball in front him. However, Wade stays true to his fundamentals and establishes contact with his inside hand on the outside shoulder of Nagel. As the two go off screen, it is clear that Nagel is unable to stack Wade who is essentially running the route for him. Pressure from Malik Harrison forces Thorson to throw the ball downfield and over the shoulder when it should have been back shoulder. Wade’s positioning and ability to track and high point the ball allows him to secure his third interception of the season.
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The above play is an example of Wade’s ability to recover. Lined up over the stacked receivers to the field side, Wade is to match up with the receiver that takes an outside release. At the snap, Wade finds himself out of position but accelerates to Nagel’s hip, allowing him to feel Nagel’s deceleration at the top of the out route. The ball sails out of bounds, but there was no separation from Nagel. Wade’s ability to flip his hips and accelerate to Nagel is impressive. These traits allow him to be versatile and handle a variety of coverage responsibilities.
With one final game remaining this season, Okudah and Wade have an opportunity to show the nation what they are capable of against a talented group of Washington receivers.
Looking to next season, Okudah and Wade should be household names in the secondary. Their presence could allow the defense to play to its full potential. With the experience gained from this year and with an offseason of continued work and refinement, these two have the potential to get even better and here their names called early in the 2020 NFL Draft.
(Image via: Eleven Warriors)