It was the precise moment Derek Stingley Jr. visualized during a childhood spent in the shadows of LSU’s campus and Tiger Stadium.
Stingley craved the day he could play for his hometown Tigers, wear the glistening purple and gold uniform and bring one of college football’s most revered venues to life.
Six games into his career with the collective eyes of the college football world squarely affixed on Tiger Stadium with Southeastern Conference unbeatens LSU and Florida in a back-and-forth Top 10 battle, his moment arrived.
“People talked about what a night game against Florida, in a very big game that could go either way, would be like,” Stingley recalled.
The game certainly lived up to the billing. Both teams matched each other touchdown for touchdown through three quarters when LSU took a seven-point lead. The Tigers were looking for breathing room when Stingley produced a pivotal play.
Quarterback Kyle Trask drove Florida to LSU’s 15-yard-line where the Gators, who trailed by a touchdown, faced a third-and-one. Trask stepped back in pocket and eyed a one-on-one matchup to the right side of the field where Stingley picked up wide receiver Freddie Swain and back-peddled with him into the end zone.
Swain never had a chance.
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Stingley completely blanketed Trask’s primary option, getting inside position on Swain and intercepting Trask for a touchback with 7:29 remaining in the game.
“I got the interception and heard nothing but piercing screaming going into my ears,” said Stingley, who eventually finished his first college season as a first-team All-American with 38 tackles, 15 pass break-ups and an SEC-leading six interceptions. “Then we scored after that. That’s what made it so good. It came at a big time and then we scored on offense and pushed the lead to 14 points ahead.”
LSU capitalized on Stingley’s interception, stretching its lead to the eventual final score of 42-28 on a 54-yard Joe Burrow scoring pass to Ja’Marr Chase with 5:43 left to play.
Stingley’s clutch pick also provided a snapshot of his enormous ability. He earned the respect of his teammates and coaches for his repeated knack of delivering in such pressure-packed moments.
“I always dreamed about it,” Stingley said. “I used to see the (LSU) games on TV and all the players that came through. I saw how big the stadium was and thought to myself how cool it would be to be out there and hear all the fans screaming. Now I’m doing it and every single time I walk in the stadium I get the chills. It’s a literal dream come true.”
A 17-year old Stingley was less than a month removed from his final high school game at The Dunham School when he joined LSU’s team for its preparations for the 2018 Fiesta Bowl.
He wasn’t supposed to begin LSU classes until the spring semester, and he knew he wouldn’t actually have the option of travelling with the team to Glendale, Az. and participate in the bowl which LSU won 40-32 over Central Florida.
But Stingley, who played on the varsity team at Dunham as an eighth-grader, wanted to start adjusting from playing on a successful Class 2A team at Dunham to leaping into a brand name major college program in arguably the nation’s toughest league.
Not only did Stingley show immediately he belonged with three interceptions in scrimmage action – including one against Burrow – but he gained valuable repetitions in practice. He was matched against a wide receiver corps that boasted eventual 2020 first-round NFL Draft choice Justin Jefferson and Chase, the 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner and projected Top 5 choice in the ’21 draft.
“I still made plays, but it was still tough,” he said. “Everything was moving so fast. Everything seemed like a blur and people were moving insanely fast. That’s what I was hoping to do. It didn’t bother me that much. I was glad to get used to being out there with all of those guys. It was a blessing. When we came back and practiced in the spring it slowed down. That helped me out a lot.”
Stingley can now joke about the seemingly endless chances to record his first collegiate interception that went awry in the first three games last season.
He started to wonder if it would ever happen.
“Everyone says you go by play by play,” Stingley said. “For me, I can’t do that. If I mess up, I’m going to think about that, so I don’t do it again and make sure I get a better play. If I drop interceptions, then I’m thinking about that until I get an interception. Those don’t come that often, so you’ve got to make sure and get them when you can.”
By his own admission, Stingley missed out on several chances to make interceptions against Northwestern State, Texas and earlier in the Vanderbilt game before picking off his first pass at the 5:40 mark of the third quarter to stop a scoring drive near his team’s 10-yard line.
With 14 career interceptions to his credit in high school, Stingley was ecstatic about his first career pick in college.
“The LSU side of the stadium (in Nashville) was sold out and that’s why I was jumping up and having fun out there after I got it,” Stingley said. “I was hearing cheers everywhere. In my head it was like, `I really just did it.’”
During LSU’s magical journey to a 15-0 record and national championship, Stingley emerged as a superstar for a defense that was clearly overshadowed by Burrow, the eventual Heisman Trophy winner leading the Tigers’ record setting offense.
As the season progressed, opposing offenses debated about throwing in Stingley’s direction. A clear example happened in a 36-13 road win over Mississippi State when he wasn’t targeted once.
“I wondered why I wasn’t getting the ball,” he said. “I was the freshman. That’s why I liked being out there because I was a freshman and thinking they were going to throw the ball at me every single play. I decided I must have been doing something right. They didn’t want to throw it to me.”
Stingley, who allowed 29 catches in 69 targets, evolved into a steady force. His tremendous instincts and ball skills galvanized an LSU defense that made considerable strides down the stretch.
In the Tigers’ 37-10 victory over Georgia in the SEC Championship, Stingley was at his menacing best with a record-tying two interceptions to go along with five tackles and a pass broken up.
Two games later, Stingley was part of an LSU secondary limiting Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence to 18-of-37 passing with 234 yards and no touchdowns. He had the final defensive say in the game, recovering a fumble by Lawrence with 3:53 left to seal a 42-25 College Football Playoff national championship game win.
“I wasn’t so much shocked by what I did,” said Stingley, who was named Pro Football Focus’ Freshman of the Year and is a 2020 preseason first-team All-American. “It’s pretty cool. I wasn’t expecting to do what I did and hopefully I can go out there and do it again this year.”