ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Quarterback Matthew Stafford knew it immediately. He had a free play because of an offside call, so he wanted to take a shot. He had veteran receiver Marvin Jones streaking down the right sideline, and Jones, when he’s in one-on-one situations with a cornerback on deep balls, will usually win.
Right there with him was Jeff Okudah, the Lions’ rookie cornerback. The ball was in the air. Okudah adjusted, cut in front of Jones and made a jumping interception. It was Stafford’s first of training camp, even though it was on a free play. That moment showed the potential Okudah has.
“It builds a lot of confidence,” Okudah said. “Just to be able to see you can make plays on the next level, especially against guys like Marvin Jones, a great receiver. I think that every day. I just look forward to going against him and Kenny [Golladay] and just competing.”
The receivers have appreciated it, too. They see the potential he has and they know, as a first-round pick, he’s going to be key to any success Detroit has this fall. They’ve been pulling him aside when they can, offering a suggestion here, a tip there.
Kenny Golladay was in a similar position in 2017, not because of draft status, but because of expectations from early contributions. He knows what it feels like in the first week, especially without a normal spring session or training camp, and the veteran receivers just want to help ease that transition, which is typically tough for a cornerback anyway.
“Okudah’s head is probably spinning. Me and Marv try to tell him, 'Come on up here and get some work with us,'” Golladay said. “Don’t hang around in the back. Just come up here and get some work, some competition that you’ll be seeing come Sunday.
“We really just want to help him any way we can for when Sunday comes.”
The first Sunday that will matter, against Chicago on Sept. 13, is less than a month away, and the Lions will need Okudah to be ready. He has mostly run with the second-team defense over the first week of camp. Okudah, who has been preparing for this moment by studying receivers and peppering his coaches throughout his Ohio State career, has appreciated the help.
Jones and Golladay have taught him things about technique and offered suggestions he had never thought of before.
“Things that defensive backs aren’t even conscious of during the snap,” Okudah said. “I think that they’ve helped me be way more aware of certain things that DBs do post-snap.”
Okudah, not surprisingly, declined to give details of what they’ve said. But the improvement has incrementally shown.
There have been times, especially during individual drills, when he has struggled against Golladay. He has looked very much like the 21-year-old rookie he is, which should be expected at this point.
But slowly, day by day, there have been flashes. On Thursday, he had a diving pass breakup, showing off his instincts and his athleticism. On Friday, he had the aforementioned interception and, working with the first team full time for the first time, saw extended work against Golladay, Jones and Stafford. This led to a play that, perhaps more than the interception, stood out to the quarterback, who has seen a lot of rookie cornerbacks in his decade-plus in the NFL.
“He undercut another ball [Friday] and made a pass breakup on Kenny on an in route that was really impressive, too,” Stafford said. “So he’s done some really nice stuff.”
It’s still a change from Ohio State, although the sense of competition hasn’t been too different from his experience with the Buckeyes and seeing different types of receivers on a day-to-day basis -- sometimes lined up against a speed receiver such as Marvin Hall and other times receivers with the savvy and high-point skills of Golladay and Jones.
He likes having those options because it forces him to work on different skills and get different reps while doing so against one of the NFL’s better arm talents and smarter quarterbacks.
“Going against [Stafford], he is putting the ball in really amazing spots,” Okudah said. “So I think sometimes it’s like, we’re in competition, but I’m in awe of the throws that he’s able to make.”
He saw a few of those this week, and by the end of it, he started to make plays on them -- including the interception that wouldn’t have counted in a real game. But in practice, still learning and figuring things out every rep of every day, it’s what Okudah craves -- another challenge and way to improve.
Because every day, even in a small way, is still progress.