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NFL Draft

Derek Stingley Jr’s Return Will Boost LSU’s Defense

  • The Draft Network
  • October 1, 2020
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K’Lavon Chaisson. Patrick Queen. Grant Delpit. Kristian Fulton. Rashard Lawrence. Tyler Shelvin. Kary Vincent Jr. That’s the list of LSU defenders that the Tigers lost to the 2020 and 2021 NFL drafts, before they even took a snap in the 2021 season.

That’s attrition right there, and it doesn’t even consider the loss of their coordinator in Dave Aranda, the new head coach at Baylor, or the loss of an offseason to install the new system, due to COVID restrictions on practices. The Tigers defense was definitely going to be worse this year, as the entire team was. 

And that’s okay. An undefeated, championship-caliber season is infrequently a repeating occurrence at the college level, and in the thick of the SEC, LSU well acknowledges the nature of cyclical team building. But it was never supposed to hurt this bad.

They were never supposed to give up an SEC-record 623 passing yards to Mississippi State, an offense they had stymied in each of the last two seasons. Of course, the new head coach Mike Leach runs a little system called the Air Raid—and runs it better than most—but that was never supposed to work in the SEC like it did in the Pac-12. The SEC is different; it just means more.

But Leach ripped up new defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, as he did in 2008 and 2009 when Leach’s Texas Tech played Pelini’s Nebraska. As PFF’s Seth Galina detailed, Pelini remained firmly entrenched in his insistence that the Tigers run true man coverage against Leach’s Air Raid attack, and Leach with former Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello at the helm, carved up LSU’s inexperienced athletes. With Fulton and Delpit departed for the NFL already and Kary Vincent Jr. already on his way to next year’s draft, there was no returning starter in the Tigers’ secondary beyond Jacoby Stevens, who plays more of a box role and wasn’t in man coverage over Osiris Mitchell or JaVonta Payton anyway.

Even with all of those departures, there was supposed to be a returning starter on the LSU defense: a potential difference-maker in man coverage. That’s Derek Stingley Jr., a unanimous freshman All-American and first-team SEC cornerback in 2019. Arguably the most talented player on an LSU defense last year that featured four top-70 picks, Stingley was the preseason favorite on the Jim Thorpe Award watch list—an award that his teammate Delpit won last season. Unfortunately, Stingley missed the game after being hospitalized for a non-COVID-19 related sickness the Friday before. Stingley suffered what doctors believe to be an allergic reaction and has been released fully healthy, and expects to make his season debut this Saturday against Vanderbilt. 

How much of a difference-maker is Stingley in that game against Mississippi State? Likely not enough to change the outcome. Leach’s offenses are famously pleased to spread the wealth, so if the guy Stingley’s matching is always blanketed, they won’t force-feed him the ball. A 0-catch game for Mitchell, the Bulldogs’ best receiver, would have taken two touchdowns off the board, yes—but those targets could have gone elsewhere, to receivers covered by the remaining inexperienced members of the LSU secondary.

But just because Stingley couldn’t have flipped a 10-point loss on its head doesn’t mean we should understate his value. Stingley is the best player left on the decimated LSU roster, and for an obstinate coordinator like Pelini who wants his guys to beat their guys, he is as critical as any player in college football.

The LSU defense is better than what they put out on the field against Mississippi State this past week, and as they acclimate to the season and begin accruing experience on a young roster, they will rise to the caliber expected of a unit riddled with top recruits. But they will immediately get better when they add one of, if not the best defensive player in the nation in Stingley, who already has NFL radars firmly keyed on his performance against the SEC’s top receivers this year and into next year’s draft cycle.

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