CORRECTION: Earlier today this post mistakenly made reference to a touchdown, the play in question was inaccurate.
Working hard, keeping his nose down and playing off of pure instincts, Jacksonville Jaguars (4-7) safety Andrew Wingard has made an unlikely climb to the NFL a reality over the past several months, and will likely earn his the first start of his career at strong safety on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7).
Jaguars safety Ronnie Harrison (concussion) has not officially been ruled out, however after missing two straight days of practice this week, it is unlikely he will suit up on Sunday. This will pave the way for Wingard to earn his first start against the Buccaneers, an opportunity he has been waiting for his entire life.
“Super cool,” Wingard told Big Cat Country on Tuesday when asked how it feels to get an opportunity on Sunday. “Obviously I haven’t got to do that since college. Obviously playing defense is fun so I’m looking forward to it, and I’m not gonna worry about messing up, and I’m not gonna worry about doing good. I’m just gonna worry about doing my job and trying to execute for my team.”
As an undrafted free agent, Wingard understands the noise surrounding him of casting doubt and because of that, he has had to always work harder to prove everyone wrong.
“When I came out of high school, I only had one division one offer. So I kinda went into Wyoming like ‘okay, no one really respects me’. I kinda went beast mode -- a different kind of beast mode. Just pure instinct, no thought, just pure instinct.”
Playing on pure instincts is what Wingard says allows him to play his best football. In training camp, the former Wyoming Cowboy said playing off of pure instincts is what allowed him to play fast and make the team. During his senior season at Wyoming, Wingard was thinking too much, missing tackles and assignments due to the pressure of getting into the NFL.
“No doubt, I was thinking. I was kinda zoned out I was like ‘alright, NFL, I got to go to the NFL’ stuff like that, and I was kinda thinking. And when you’re thinking it’s hard to tackle, it’s hard to cover guys. I think I’ve played super well this year, obviously on special teams going out making tackles and stuff I’m just going off instincts.”
Wingard currently leads the team in tackles on special teams with seven. The team’s special teams coach, Joe DeCamilis, was tough on Wingard during OTAs and minicamp, but he says it’s a good thing. When a coach is not tough, that’s when you have to be worried.
“I remember in practice it was last week -- I don’t remember which day it was -- but me and him were talking about something and he goes ‘hey man, you’re playing great keep it up’, so to see those things, to get those things to happen is super cool. It means a lot to me just to know my hard work has been put in.”
His hard work has been noticed by his teammates including his partner-in-crime on Sunday — Jaguars safety Jarrod Wilson.
“I’m excited for him,” Wilson told Big Cat Country on Tuesday. Wilson says it’s another opportunity for Wingard to get out there and play football again. “I know he’s been playing football forever and I feel like sometimes you kinda get a tag of just being a special teams guy as opposed to an actual contributor on defense and every time he’s got in there he’s done good things so it’s just an opportunity to just go out there and put what he can display out there on Sunday.”
Both Wilson and Wingard took similar paths to playing football on Sundays. Being an undrafted player, typically you get assigned a tag of not being good enough, or having to constantly prove yourself. Wingard’s mentality, Wilson says, is one of his best traits.
“It’s really just Gods grace man, it’s been a blessing. He’s just been doing a good job. I like just how he is mentally. He studies, he’s on top of everything, the checks the calls. Never gets down on himself. Have his fair share of mistakes for just being out there for his first time, and he’s been able to bounce back each time so it’s been pretty good to see that from him.”
If Wingard starts on Sunday, the Jaguars will be deploying four undrafted defensive backs in cornerbacks Bouye and Tre Herndon along with safeties Wilson and Wingard.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” Wilson said when told that would be the case on Sunday against the Buccaneers. “I think regardless of first-round or undrafted if you can play you can play. I think every guy that’s in the back end, we just so happened to be undrafted guys and just still continue to fight and prove ourselves each week.”
Wingard prides himself in being a cerebral player and recalls those late nights in the hotel studying the Jaguars’ playbook in May.
“I remember being in the hotel in May just reading that playbook, reading that playbook, trying to get things right so I could go out there and execute and show the coaches that I am smart,” said Wingard. “It was definitely a learning curve.”
Although he is a rookie, Wingard had an opportunity to be ahead of the curve when he was signed shortly following the draft. At Wyoming Wingard’s defensive coordinator was former Jaguars linebacker coach Scottie Hazelton, so he was already comfortable with the defense coming into the year. Playing fast, and instinctual will be the key to success for Wingard moving forward.
“The second you get complacent in this league ‘bye-bye’, so you know I’m just going to continue to try to do what I do and just play off my instincts and God got me.”