Derek Stingley Jr. sees accolades as progress reports, continues to improve
Derek Stingley Jr. almost seems surprised and confused all over again remembering the moment.
His father, Derek Sr., showed him in June he had been named Rivals’ top overall prospect in the nation, and the younger Stingley reacted as he always does to the many accolades thrust upon him.
“I was honestly like, ‘Whoa,’” says a once-again wide-eyed Derek Jr. “I really didn’t see that coming at all. But when people say it, it just goes in one ear and out the other. I don’t really think about it. I didn’t feel any different from when I was unranked, from then to now. I feel the same.”
Derek Jr. — “Lil Sting” or “Tre” — has been a household name for many Louisiana football fans for the final two or three years of his highlight-reel career at Dunham and increasingly so the closer Wednesday’s signing with hometown LSU approaches.
Still, he has asked Derek Sr. questions like “Really?” and “Why me?” with more rankings, All-America or Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year honors and media requests than not.
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound cornerback and return ace is confident in his undeniable ability.
But his focuses remain as genuinely fixed on improvement and competition — and as far from the resulting acknowledgment — as many peers merely say.
And he doesn’t dwell on the awards that follow.
For Derek Jr., each recognition is more of a progress report than an achievement.
“It’s cool to hear that you’re the best at something, but it doesn’t really do a whole lot,” he says. “I know I had to do a whole bunch of stuff to get to that point, so I know I have to keep doing that in order to stay at that point.”
The mindset has helped aid his impressive work ethic to continue to build upon his early successes and into a player expected to make an immediate impact as a college freshman.
'Kids his age don't do this'
Dunham coach Neil Weiner remembers Derek Sr. asking for additional opinions on his son’s budding potential from the time he began high school.
“We were just talking outside the weight room during his ninth-grade year, and he said, ‘How good do you think he really is?’” Weiner recounts. “I said, ‘Coach, he’s a BCS, top player in the state type of talent.’ We don’t say, ‘BCS,’ anymore, but we did then. And he said, ‘You think so?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ And he said, ‘I think so, too.’
“Just watching him grow as a ninth-grader — we pulled him up as an eighth-grader, and he was a part of the team and he even had two interceptions as an eighth-grader. But as a ninth-grader, he was the man already, and I’d never really seen that before.”
Derek Sr., a longtime player and coach in various professional leagues, first saw the potential when “Tre” was in his first years walking.
“Derek had to be about 3 or 4 years old, out here in the front yard on that little bitty patch of grass,” Derek Sr. motions. “Every other day, we would go out there and work on football stuff — offense, defense and special teams, always in that order. I’d draw up all the routes — whatever they were — hitch, slant, dig, go, post, corner, dig, out — and I’d say, ‘let’s go.’ And he would run slant, slant, slant, then out, out, out, and so on. And we’d go from that, basically running the route tree, to running back, calling plays — the 1-, 3- and 5- holds, then 2-, 4-, 6-, all the plays.
“And, now, he was understanding all of this, picking up plays and seeing, ‘This is how this works.’ And, then his elusive moves, spinning away and hurdling and the whole deal, converting the ball over to the outside hand, working on jump-cuts… He was 3 or 4, and I just remember thinking, ‘Kids his age don’t do this.’”
Derek Sr. sent video to his father, former New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley, who said his grandson looked like he’d played football in a past life.
'I'm gonna win'
Derek Sr. describes his son as having “a perfectionist gene” from an early age.
“He wanted to do it right — and if he had time to prepare, he most definitely wants to do it right,” Derek Sr. says. “I used to say, ‘He’s just an ultra-competitor,’ although he doesn’t show it with emotions. He doesn’t boast it. He doesn’t brag about it. He’s not braggadocios. None of that. It’s more, ‘I’m gonna win.’”
Derek Jr. soaked up opportunities to work with his father and his father’s coaching and training colleagues.
“We used to own a gym — myself, (Dunham assistant Randy) Leindecker and another guy,” Derek Sr. says. “And during the summer he was in there doing everything, agility drills, working with (former USA Olympic weightlifting coach) Gayle Hatch on how to lift — with broomsticks of course — and the fundamentals of Olympic-style lifting with (Olympic weightlifting champion) Matt Bruce and all of those guys. And his technique to this day is flawless because he had a foundation that not many kids his age have ever done.”
Derek Jr. began asking “Why?” back then.
Not in the sense of “Why do we have to do this?” — but rather trying to understand “How does this work?”
And, as he got older, he used that knowledge to continue to take an increasing ownership in the process, his workouts and his diet.
“It was more of him being self-motivated than a coach or myself pushing him to do more things to stay polished and do things like that,” Derek Sr. says. “He’s always been a realist to where he even knew his faults and the things he needed to do to get better. He knew if he was gonna play in the SEC, he had to be bigger, stronger, put on more muscle weight, work on speed, transition, things like that, to where, I didn’t go around saying, ‘Hey, man, you need to hit the gym,’ or ‘You need to eat.’
“He would come to me, like, ‘Dad, I’ve got to put on some weight. How do I make that happen?’ To where we’ve trained, I was initially starting him working out early in the morning, and then actually I would leave to go coach, and he would still on his own get up early every morning — even though I’m in another city — and go do his workout. So he became dedicated.”
Dunham CB Derek Stingley Jr. (@JrStingley) handled himself w/ toughness, but also discipline in physical matchup on perimeter.— Jerit Roser (@JeritRoser) March 4, 2018
Also showed big-play WR ability.
Planning top five release this summer, college decision before senior season.#LSU the leader, but top 10 still in. pic.twitter.com/YjJyS7A5ve
'Always played with confidence'
Derek Jr. earned varsity playing time as an eighth-grader and expected to make every play from the moment he touched the field.
“He’s always played with confidence,” Weiner says. “I’ve told this story before, but as an eighth grader, we’re playing Northeast, and the quarterback scrambles and throws him the ball. And it’s the last play of the game, and he doesn’t catch it because he was having to make a diving catch and keep this foot in bounds. It was impossible. And he was crushed — like inconsolable — after the game. And it’s like, ‘Dude, you’re 13 years old. You weren’t even supposed to be in the game, much less have to make that play.’ He has just always played with confidence and believe that he belongs wherever he is.”
Derek Sr. remembers his son always being 3-4 years ahead for his age.
So Derek Jr. continued to expect to excel as an underclassman. And he continued to work to dominate as a junior and senior.
"Derek is by far the most gifted person athletically that I've ever been around," says University Lab cornerback and Arizona State commit Jordan Clark, a friend and 7-on-7 teammate of Stingley. "I mean, look at bro — he's huge. Then you combine that with the freakish explosiveness and ball skills he has. It's extraordinary. There were times in 7-on-7 where the entire tournament knew we were throwing the ball to Derek, and still no one could do anything about it. Or just messing around before games playing catch with someone and he'd come floating from over my head and catch the ball one-handed with no gloves on.
"You'd think that all of this stuff is just during 7-on-7, you know? That he'd be a bit more normal when the pads go on. And it's scary, because it's worse. He does what he wants from throwing touchdowns to catching them. He's an absolute problem. Just when you think you've seen it all, he goes and does something else to remind you that he's not of this Earth, then he tosses the ball to the ref and jogs back to the sideline like nothing happened as we all stand there gawking at what we just saw."
Opponents only targeted “Lil Sting” 18 times in 2017.
And the junior compiled 11 interceptions and seven pass breakups as a result.
Teams tested him even less frequently this fall, which limited his defensive numbers to three interceptions.
Dunham found as many ways to get him involved offensively, too, though, en route to 24 receptions for 678 touchdowns and 11 carries for 192 yards and four more scores.
“My thoughts to that has been, yeah, he’s good, and I know his faults, but I also know his strengths,” Derek Sr. says. “And I always looked at it like this: If he competed and he did something well, nine out of 10 times it was to his strengths. And I knew if he got compromised in something that gave him issues, that one time it was what was his weak part of his game that he still needed to get better on. As of late, I kind of was like, ‘You know what, he’s losing those weaknesses, and I see a complete player,’ where his technique has gotten extremely better even from the summer from last year.”
The positive attitude and consummate work ethic from such a prominent player have helped make the entire Dunham program better, his coach says.
“So many times you see guys that are super-talented guys, but they’re problem guys,” Weiner says. “So it makes it difficult as coaches because we want to hold a hard line and hold everybody the same way, but, ‘Man, if we treat him like this, then that’s gonna screw up that.’ And for him to be the hardest working guy, it really helps us as coaches to be able to say, ‘Hey, if Derek Stingley’s doing this, then why aren’t you doing it?’ So it’s definitely be a huge part.”
And the expectation is for that effect to translate to college, as well.
'Really been blessed'
Derek Jr.’s phone buzzed a couple weeks ago with an alert he had initially set the summer following his freshman year: a notification reminding him Signing Day was approaching.
“It was right after I got the offer from LSU,” he says. “I was just playing around. It wasn’t too serious like. It was more, ‘This is when Signing Day is. Let’s see if I can do it.’”
On Wednesday morning, Derek Jr. will become the first player in Dunham history to sign a football scholarship with LSU out of high school.
“I think we’re gonna feel like he’s living out his dream, and that’s what every parent wants their child to do,” Derek Sr. says. “We’re gonna be happy for him — no doubt. Crazy supportive. We’re gonna be with him through it all. It’s just the regular-ole clichés.”
Derek Jr. will enjoy the celebration with his family and friends.
But he will happily exhale when the morning’s fanfare and media attention have subsided.
“The way I look at it is some people will get a high ranking and they’ll start to change who they are because they’re really good at what they do,” Derek Jr. says. “I don’t wanna be that person. I don’t wanna be that arrogant person who people hate being around because he’s always talking about himself and stuff like that. I’m gonna stay the same type of person that I was before football. I’m gonna be the same during and after it.”
Adds Clark: "He's always been a very humble and low-key guy ever since I met him. He never boasts or brags about any of his accolades or accomplishments — just puts his head down and works hard and enjoys life. That's a big reason why I have so much respect for him. A guy like that who's talented, hard-working and humble is easy to root for."
Weiner actually thinks Stingley may have somehow grown even more humble as his status has continued to rise.
"He's the exact opposite of what you would imagine most guys would be like to get that type of attention," the coach says. "I think he's had a better attitude the more and more accolades that come upon him... I just think he's grown a true sense of gratitude, like, 'Hey, I've really been blessed, and I've also worked really hard. A lot of that comes from my dad pushing me, coaches pushing me, teammates pushing me.' And I think he appreciates kind of the gravity of what he has become."
'Just another step'
The young star is more excited about the next step Wednesday will signify than the spectacle of the moment itself.
He joins the Tigers as arguably as much a highlight as any counterpart in their likely top-five recruiting class.
“Physically, last year as a junior, he was good enough, in my opinion, to be a starting corner at LSU — which is not an easy thing to do,” Weiner says. “So from a physical standpoint, he’s going to come in and be in better physical condition than some of the guys he’ll be competing with for that spot.
“But from a mental standpoint, the way he approaches being a football player and being a student of the game, I think it’s gonna elevate the rest of the team, because he puts in the work in the film room, scouting report, watching those things. And so many kids just rely on their talent, even at that level. They say, ‘Oh, I watch film.’ Well, they don’t watch film like they have to, and Derek does. So I think that’s gonna elevate everybody.”
Derek Jr.’s attitude, work ethic and study habits helped earn him an offer from LSU coaches months ago to where the highly regarded No. 7 jersey when he officially joins the program this spring.
As usual, the surprised young star asked, “Why me?”
“But now, we’ve talked about it, and I’m starting to think more about it and thinking maybe I’ll take it,” he says. “It’s just been Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Leonard Fournette, and they all were really good dudes that will probably end up in the Hall-of-Fame one day. That’s just some big shoes to fill.”
The former Tigers — all now in the NFL — were among the LSU players Stingley first emulated and modeled himself after.
Picturing himself in that same elite company is a somewhat foreign concept.
“I think eventually I could get to that point because I know I have play-making ability,” Derek Jr. says. “No matter what the competition is like, I know I can make somebody miss in the open field, like punt return-wise. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu finding the ball and making plays, I feel like I can do that. It’s just learning and a whole different setting while being in school, it’s a big transition. But people do it all the time, so it’s just another step.”
With many more to come, even for a player already of his caliber.
“It’s gonna be nice,” Derek Sr. says. “I almost say I don’t know how I’m gonna feel because I’m gonna have some anxiety about it. Some nervousness. But excited, you know? Overwhelmed with joy. Proud. All of those things are gonna come, so that first game, every game, that sellout game, that Bama game, that bowl game, whatever, it’s gonna be a lot of firsts, and it’s gonna be an emotional rollercoaster.
“But we’re pretty sure that he’s gonna do basically what he’s born to do and play to his ultimate and play well.”