Georgia quarterback Jamie Newman, LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase and Auburn linebacker Chandler Wooten were among the notable Southeastern Conference football players who chose to opt out before the 2020 season due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Opting out didn't stop after the opening kickoff, with South Carolina losing starting quarterbacks Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu with a month's worth of games remaining.
If anybody had reason to step aside before or during last season, it was LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., who is often projected as the SEC's top NFL draft pick in 2022. According to the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder from Baton Rouge, opting out of his sophomore season for a 5-5 team and returning fresh as a junior was not something he considered.
"I've always wanted to finish out a season strong," Stingley said at SEC Media Days. "I never thought about leaving. I've always wanted to finish everything out good."
Stingley became the most decorated freshman in LSU history two years ago, earning consensus All-America honors as a 15-game starter and leading the SEC with six interceptions. Ed Orgeron's Tigers rolled to that season's national title, winning each of their last six games by at least 17 points.
His reputation carried over more than his numbers last season, as Stingley earned All-America honors again despite playing just seven of 10 games and recording 27 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, five pass breakups and no interceptions.
As a defense, LSU was torched for a league-record 623 passing yards in a 44-34 opening loss to Mississippi State, and there would be other rotten days. Missouri, Auburn, Alabama and Ole Miss each racked up at least 45 points on LSU, with the Tigers only managing to outlast Ole Miss in what became the finale due to a self-imposed postseason ban.
The defensive ineptitude resulted in just one year for Bo Pelini as coordinator and the hiring of Daronte Jones for the role. Jones spent the past several seasons in the NFL, working as Minnesota's defensive backs coach last year and as Cincinnati's cornerbacks coach the two seasons before that.
"We have to eliminate explosive plays," Orgeron said. "We had too many explosive plays, too many missed assignments, too many busts and too many receivers running down the field free. We played a lot of man and a lot of combination of man, stuff like that. Some of it was simple. Some of it was too complicated.
"We're going to simplify stuff. We want our players to have their cleats in the grass. We're going to play a lot more zone. They're not going to be switching off of this level and switching off of that level. We want our guys to play, keep the ball in front of us and make plays."
Last year: 5-5 (5-5 SEC)
Season opener: Sept. 4 vs. UCLA in Pasadena, Calif. (8:30 p.m. on Fox)
Fun fact: LSU’s 10-game drop in wins from the 15-0 national championship season in 2019 to last year’s 5-5 mark was the largest plummet in SEC history.
Up next: Ole Miss
For Stingley, this will mean three coordinators in three years. His freshman success occurred under Dave Aranda, who is entering his second season as head coach of Baylor University.
"Coach Jones brings a lot of stuff from the NFL, and whenever he introduces something new to us, he breaks it down on an NFL level and shows us how they did it when he was at the Vikings," Stingley said. "He shows clips from that, or he shows clips from the Bengals. When we see that, we're like, 'OK, we can do that.'
"They're making it look simple, so we can go out there and do it, too."
LSU has two new coordinators, with Jake Peetz taking over an offense that is on the doorstep of an August quarterback competition involving senior Myles Brennan, sophomore Max Johnson and freshman Garrett Nussmeier. Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery give the Tigers some potential at running back, while Kayshon Boutte is not only a stellar name but already a proven receiver after amassing 45 catches for 735 yards (16.3 yards per reception) last season as a freshman.
Orgeron admitted at SEC Media Days that things became too relaxed after the national championship, adding that he has implemented more of a "Do it the way I want" approach this year.
He certainly has help from a leadership standpoint defensively with Stingley, who is seeking to join former defensive back Tommy Casanova (1969-71) as the only three-time first-team All-Americans in program history. Stingley will be wearing the coveted No. 7 jersey, which has been awarded in recent years to the likes of running back Leonard Fournette and defensive backs Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Grant Delpit.
"I'm very excited to have it," said Stingley, who wore No. 24 the past two seasons. "It's something I've always seen as a kid — the hype around it and what everybody did with the number. That's what I look forward to doing.
"I really want to leave a mark."
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