LSU football: Eli Ricks finally breaks out -- with a different team
Eli Ricks is coming around.
He is coming off a stellar, award-winning performance in his last game.
He will be in the spotlight in the 2nd-biggest SEC game this weekend.
Ricks arrived at LSU 2 years ago as one of the most sought-after defensive backs in the country. He had a standout 1st season, then was injured for much of his 2nd.
Now he seems to be back on track to becoming a high NFL Draft choice as the No. 15 Tigers prepare to face No. 6 Alabama in a 1st-place battle in the SEC West on Saturday night at Tiger Stadium.
But Ricks no longer wears purple and gold.
He’ll be dressed in crimson and white as he lines up against his former teammates.
Ricks was one of many LSU players to enter the transfer portal after head coach Ed Orgeron was fired last season. He chose to join Alabama, setting up a notable matchup against his former team.
But for a long time, it seemed Ricks would be a bit player in his return to Baton Rouge.
He was slowed by a minor injury during preseason camp, then didn’t play in the 2nd game of the season at Texas.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban suggested that Ricks’ practice habits were insufficient to earn him significant playing time.
But when the Tide’s pass defense was burned for 385 yards and 5 touchdowns (from 11, 13, 36, 60 and 78 yards) as well as 4 pass interference penalties in a 52-49 loss to Tennessee 3 weeks ago, Ricks ascended to the starting lineup.
It’s unclear whether Ricks’ practice habits improved dramatically, or whether Saban, defensive coordinator Pete Golding and cornerbacks coach Travaris Robinson were desperately in search of a spark in the secondary (or perhaps both). But Ricks seized the opportunity.
He started against Mississippi State and one of the most productive passing games in the country.
Bulldogs quarterback Will Rogers threw Ricks’ way 10 times. All he and State had to show for it was 1 completion for 19 yards.
Ricks tied for the team lead with 4 pass breakups in the 30-6 victory, and Ricks earned the Bednarik Award for outstanding defensive play.
Saban, who works with the defensive backs in practice, gave a positive evaluation to Ricks’ preparation and play in his 1st week as a starter.
It’s unclear exactly what the rotation in the secondary will look like coming out of an open date. But it seems clear that Ricks, who started ahead of redshirt freshman Terrion Arnold against State, has earned a prominent role.
Kool-Aid McKinstry already has established himself as the No. 1 corner. Arnold could be the 3rd corner or slide to safety, where he played in high school.
Either way, Ricks’ emergence gives the Tide multiple options.
There’s little doubt that Ricks will be excited to face his former team and try to build on his success of 2 weeks ago.
LSU has a talented group of wide receivers and an improving passing game, triggered by transfer quarterback Jayden Daniels.
Ricks is well-acquainted with Kayshon Boutte, who was one of the most productive receivers in the country before being injured last season. In fact Boutte’s career has featured ups and downs that aren’t significantly dissimilar to those Ricks has experienced.
Boutte had his practice habits questioned by 1st-year coach Brian Kelly, was slowed by injury and got off to a slow start. He still hasn’t regained his form, but like Ricks, he recently had performed as though he might be ready to break out.
The Tigers have other talented receivers in Malik Nabers, Jaray Jenkins and Brian Harris Jr., who will test whether Ricks is able to have the kind of impact he had when he was a Tiger 2 years ago.
As a freshman, Ricks played in 8 games and had 4 interceptions, returning 2 for touchdowns — a 45-yarder against South Carolina and a 68-yarder against Florida — and was named a Freshman All-American.
But last season, he played in just 6 games and finished with 1 interception and 1 pass defended.
Ricks will have an opportunity to show his former team that he’s more like the 2020 version of himself than the 2021 version.
Or perhaps there’s a 2022 version that’s emerging as something different.