ATLANTA — There’s a piece of paper on the dashboard of Derek Stingley Jr.’s car.
Written before the season, it lists his goals. For example, he wanted to lead the Southeastern Conference in interceptions and become a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, an honor given to the best defensive back in the nation.
The freshman cornerback looks at the sheet every day. It rests inside the vehicle unsupported by tape or adhesive. He uses it as inspiration.
“I always hear speeches like that,” Stingley said. “Write down your goals. My dad always tells me to do that. He doesn't know I do it.”
Stingley reached one of those goals on Saturday afternoon inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He intercepted two passes as No. 2 LSU beat No. 4 Georgia, 37-10, and won its first SEC Championship since 2011, once again exceeding expectations associated with his true freshman status.
The interceptions gave Stingley six this season — the most in the conference. He has two more than anyone else in the SEC and the seventh-most in one season of LSU history. And with LSU heading toward the College Football Playoff, Stingley may add to that total as he continues to defy his age.
“If the guy gets any better,” junior safety Kary Vincent said, “he'll be God himself.”
ATLANTA — Two Februarys ago, Ed Orgeron returned to his native Larose for a banquet. He made what sounded like an audacious promise:
Stingley, 18, arrived on campus in January as the highest-rated recruit in the country. He barely spoke for months. He cemented himself as a starter, but he had to adjust to the college game. He never got beat in high school. When he did during spring practice at LSU, he thought about that one play the rest of the day.
“That's something I knew I was going to struggle with,” Stingley said. “I did at first.”
Early on, quarterback Joe Burrow threw in Stingley’s direction to find out if he played as well as everyone claimed. The tests forced Stingley to forget mistakes. He sometimes blanketed LSU’s wide receivers, but Burrow completed the pass anyway. It taught Stingley to approach the game one play at a time, and now, Stingley credits Burrow with part of his adjustment to college.
“That taught me a lot about the game because it's going to happen,” Stingley said. “Once I got over that, then I knew that I'd be all right.”
ATLANTA — Two truths emerged when Joe Burrow turned on his heels Saturday, a defender sliding harmlessly past in the backfield.
Stingley started the season opener, sat in first class — an area reserved for veterans and playmakers — on the flight to Texas in Week 2, intercepted a pass in four straight games and let LSU trust him in man-to-man coverage. He got beat at times, but throughout the year, he has played like one of the best cornerbacks in college football.
Stingley reinforced that status against Georgia. With the Bulldogs driving toward the end of the first half, Stingley intercepted quarterback Jake Fromm. He had allowed completions on similar routes this season by looking inside for back shoulder throws.
This time, Stingley pinned wide receiver Tyler Simmons on the sideline and blocked him from the football. Stingley turned inside as an underthrown pass approached them. He grabbed it for his fifth interception, and Fromm walked off the field shaking his head.
“That's something I've been working on,” Stingley said. “I finally did it.”
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Later, Stingley punched a touchdown catch from the grasp of wide receiver Matt Landers, forcing Georgia to settle for a field goal attempt. It missed. Then, when LSU took a 24-point lead, Stingley broke on a short pass for his second interception. After he got tackled, Stingley strutted into the end zone holding up one finger.
No one had intercepted two passes in the SEC Championship Game since Florida’s Lito Sheppard in 2000. Fromm had thrown three interceptions all season. Stingley almost doubled the total.
“I don't know how he can get better,” junior safety JaCoby Stevens said. “He's going to find a way because he's hungry. He's not satisfied.”
After the game, Stingley pulled a black championship hat backward over his hair. Standing on the edge of a stage, he smiled while confetti burst around the team, and bewilderment washed over his face. Coach Ed Orgeron hugged him when they walked off the field.
“Stingley,” one woman yelled from the stands, “We love you.”
The LSU coaches will find plenty to celebrate now that the Tigers have won their first Southeastern Conference championship since 2011, and pa…
Though Vincent called him an NFL-ready cornerback, Stingley has two more seasons before he can consider a professional career. He wants to improve his technique and understanding of the entire defense, making his job “easier” on the field.
"I got a lot to work on," Stingley said, smiling. "I don't know how to explain it."
This season, Stingley said, has played out like a dream. He learned he can still play well if he allows a completion. He leads the conference in interceptions, passes defended and passes broken up. He has accomplished more in one season than some players do their entire careers. He also did not get selected as a Jim Thorpe Award finalist.
Back in Stingley’s car, the goals remain on his dashboard.