In an age where recruits are increasingly reluctant to name a leader at any point in the process, it was surprising to see 2017 South Grand Prairie safety Jeffrey Okudah admit that the Ohio State Buckeyes currently top his list:
#ESPNJr300 No. 10 @TheJeffOkudah names #OhioState his leader over #Stanford #Noles & #Gigem...going to #TCU game Sat pic.twitter.com/Ca0cmf2B8E— Gerry Hamilton (@HamiltonESPN) October 1, 2015
If it was surprising to see the Buckeyes take the early lead, it was disappointing that the Texas Longhorns didn't make his initial list, though not unexpected. Okudah hasn't been on campus since he picked up his offer from the Horns on April 11 and despite connections to Texas in the form of sophomore safety Jason Hall, there have been rumblings for some time that head coach Charlie Strong and his staff have plenty of ground to make up with the 6'2, 194-pounder.
A consensus five-star prospect, Okudah looks like a can't-miss recruit in the 2017 class -- he's the No. 10 player nationally, the No. 1 safety, and the No. 2 player in Texas, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. His offer list backs up the rankings, as 31 schools have officially entered his recruitment, including the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Tennessee, UCLA, and USC, in addition to the schools he mentioned as standing out to him.
The No. 3 in-state safety for 2017 is Southlake Carroll's Robert Barnes, an Oklahoma legacy already committed to the Sooners, so Manvel's Derrick Tucker, 247Sports' No. 3 safety nationally, may end up becoming the top target, though LSU is already the favorite in his 247Sports Crystal Ball.
Of course, there's time for Texas to make a move with Okudah and improved on-field results this season and in 2016 could help make a difference, but the recruiting issues at safety are part and parcel of why the Horns look like a shadow of the school formerly known as DBU. Fans still like to argue about the school's identity as such during the offseason, but the safety play this year has put into stark relief just how far Texas has fallen.
Hall hasn't progressed as a sophomore in showing serious liabilities in coverage and junior Dylan Haines, the former walk on, has had his athleticism exposed at times. Behind them, there's a 5'9 legacy and a freshman who was a back-up plan in the 2015 recruiting class. That back-up plan, PJ Locke, could certainly turn into a fine safety, as could the injured DeShon Elliott and redshirt freshman John Bonney if he makes the move, but there's not much depth there at the moment to survive injuries, attrition, or players who fail to develop, like junior Adrian Colbert, who was the No. 2 in-state safety in the 2012 class but immediately got passed on the depth chart by Locke.
Texas is in its current position in part because the top in-state safety hasn't committed to the Longhorns since Sheroid Evans in 2011, with the miss on Jamal Adams looming particularly large in the 2014 class. In 2016, Texas looks unlikely to flip LSU commit Eric Monroe and holds only one Crystal Ball prediction between Manvel safety Deontay Anderson (considered an Ole Miss lean) and Nacogdoches safety Brandon Jones (considered a Texas A&M lean).
Making the lists for Anderson and Jones was a positive sign and both should take official visits to Austin at some point, with the staff surely selling the duo on the possibility of early playing time. Jones in particular grew up a Texas fan and admitted this spring that Texas A&M lost its edge once he visited other schools.
Unfortunately, the harsh reality at the moment is that Texas isn't in a leading position with any of the elite in-state safeties across two classes. If that doesn't change, the developmental pressure will increase on players like Locke, Elliott, and Bonney, with little room for failure.