Updated: Mar 28
OUR 400TH ARTICLE
by Lonn Phillips Sullivan
TOP 10 TIGERS OF 2020 LIST:
the time has come....
the #1 Tiger of 2020 was, is and will forever be:
-6 CATCHES ALLOWED
-2 INTs RETURNED FOR TDs
-3 FORCED INCOMPLETIONS
-1 TD SURRENDERED (vs Miss State)
That's right....a freshman cornerback was the #1 Tiger of 2020...and we all know it.
Eli Ricks was just that good...
In a season where LSU's adults looked on in frozen dismay as the house caught fire, even dumping gasoline on the flames in an attempt to extinguish Pelini, Busch and Linehan's cacophony, the kids stood up and took charge, dragging our squad over the line just barely to finish at .500 on the season.
There's a reason most of our Top 10 Tigers of 2020 happen to be freshmen or sophomores....they accepted the reins during the worst season in Louisiana State football's illustrious 21st century history... refusing to allow the Tigers their first losing season since the turn of the millennium.
It had been 20+ years since the Tigers' 3-8 season in 1999, a collapse which saw a head coach fired and a complete change in course take hold in its aftermath....who knows what direction the program would've taken after 2020 without the contributions of Eli Ricks.
Ricks' impact wasn't just felt in statistics, direct wins or his defensive touchdowns / turnovers: The So Cal-native's influence was felt within the locker room and on the field as one of the last standing authorities trying to force the worst ever Tigers defense to wake up.
Since his mythological recruitment, many people have wondered, debated and agonized over Eli Ricks' every move for a good portion of his time at Mater Dei, IMG or LSU...swirling debate, over-analysis, in-depth inventories surrounding anything & everything to do with the young All-American corner's every step, performance, vague tweet....even his now iconic on-field celebrations...
There's an obsession and an overreaction towards Eli Ricks; the So Cal DB is an ethereal presence who frightens opponents just as much as he hypnotizes fans. These mystical powers are all due to his unrivaled abilities and assassin's swagger.
2020 was just Ricks scratching the surface, yet it may not have been fully possible without an incredible purple & gold example close to home:
Derek Stingley Jr's 6 INT / National Championship-winning freshman debut raised the stakes significantly for all freshman corners...
Not just for DBU, but for the entire national college football landscape....it was only natural that Eli, his close friend & current teammate, would pick up right where he left off, right???
No one was going to believe that.
Entering his debut campaign, no one believed Eli could grab 4 interceptions in 9 games during his freshman year....except for LSU Odyssey, as you can clearly see in our early summer 2020 Eli Ricks profile and interview with his mother Shauna.
After watching his target by target reps at both Mater Dei and IMG, how could you not have a feeling he would try to top his pal Derek?
Obviously the national media had no idea what kind of competitor Eli Ricks is.
In fact, when studying his freshman year in full, it's actually pretty heroic our 5 star corner was able to start the season on time, fly around with reckless abandon and pull off stunning aerial works of art...and he was only at 60-70 health%.
Eli arrived at LSU just on the heels of shoulder surgery. Ricks had hurt his shoulder at some point just before his senior season at IMG; Not being able to stand missing his senior year, the California Kid put off surgery for the entire season, still ripping 3 interceptions out of the air. However, you could tell he was surviving out there at times during his lone year at IMG, putting his body on the line and paying the price for it afterwards.
Once his final year at IMG came to a close, Eli's family moved to Baton Rouge to be by his side, his mother Shauna taking up her successful real estate practice in Louisiana.
After his offseason operation, Ricks was there for the first day of camp, pushing through tremendous pain for the game he loves. He found himself frustrated and limited throughout the 3 days of Spring football last year, but the first historic photos of Eli on campus wearing his gold #1 jersey instantly went viral.
When Covid-19 shut down the country as well as LSU practices for much of the spring and into parts of the summer, many believed it would be the Tigers' freshmen who'd suffer the most from the lack of practices. It was expected by such a large portion, that plenty of our articles touting our incoming 2020 freshmen were lambasted by a more "logical" LSU groupthink.
Well....they happened to be very wrong...to a hilarious degree:
Because of Eli's intense behind-closed-doors leadership and all-action example, freshmen such as B.J Ojulari, Jaquelin Roy, Kayshon Boutte or Max Johnson rose from the netherworld of LSU's bench and took over the 2020 team...
That's right....not even a global pandemic could stop Eli Ricks.
You'd think Eli's recovery would go astray once the pandemic hit..."his shoulder wouldn't build back the muscle mass" it lost during the main part of his recovery, maybe even an injury relapse, perhaps his family being in Baton Rouge would make him "lose his edge".....so many different outcomes could've occurred...but if anything, Ricks worked himself back into such relentless football shape, you could argue he may have even pushed himself too hard over the practice-less summer.
He rehabbed tirelessly with everyone from specialists to NFL trainers, drilling alongside current NFL Pro Bowlers, working with Derek Jr and all the other Tigers DBs....taking advice from DBs Coach Corey Raymond, Coach Stingley Sr and former LSU Tiger Ryan Clark among others..
As practices returned, Eli's shoulder healed to the point he intercepted a Myles Brennan pass during scrimmage...his first since his time at IMG. Regardless of his brilliance, Coach Ed Orgeron and DBs Coach Corey Raymond favored Cordale Flott over Ricks for the starting role, attributing his shoulder injury's necessity for full recovery into the mix of excuses.
But you just can't keep this kid from the field...
Yes....Eli wasn't supposed to start Week 1 vs Mississippi State....but when Derek went down with a medical emergency on the eve of opening day, the former Mater Dei DB was thrown into the fire...a moment he relished.
While he bit on a crossing route, mistiming his jump at the ball and allowing a long touchdown in behind, that would be the last touchdown Ricks would allow for the rest of the year.
Regardless, on the day DBU appeared anonymous, having their cooked asses handed to them on a George Foreman grill... getting ruthlessly picked apart by Miss State's QB K.J Costello for 623 yards against the Stingley-less, confused and (in the case of Jay Ward) injured secondary...all while the Pelini / Raymond / Busch defensive axis blew to pieces over the course of one solitary afternoon.
At the same time, Eli stood tall as the one true representative of DBU out there on the day, belying his shoulder surgery to produce a moment of inspiration which should've turned the tables for LSU; nevertheless, the moment ended with the former Mater Dei corner announcing himself on the world's SEC stage:
Facing a 34-24 deficit from a driving Miss State, Eli knew he had to make a play...someone had to create a turnover or #6 LSU were going to lose at home in one of their most humiliating defeats ever.
So, the first chance Costello gave him to make another play on the ball, Ricks duly obliged.
While covering a fade route on Stingley's usual right side, Ricks left his feet and took the ball out of the sky at its highest apex, challenging gravity, slapping it in the face and coming down with the football. Afterwards, he ran around in defiant, "LET'S GEAUX" celebration in an attempt to bolster his teammates, energize the few fans allowed in the stadium, and hopefully cajole LSU's offense into taking over the game.
Immediately, LSU's offense drove down the field in an instant, cutting the score to 34-31; Correspondingly, Eli's huge play seemed to wake up the defense on the next drive as they forced a four and out, giving the ball back to the offense.
Sadly, the Tigers were held to a game-tying field goal and in the end, LSU would lose a historic opening weekend game...
At the same time, we all now understood just who we were dealing with at cornerback...Eli Ricks was fulfilling the hype and then some, although the historically bad performance from LSU's secondary covered up his majestic playmaking.
After week 1, Eli went from strength to strength...especially when Derek Stingley Jr returned against Vanderbilt:
Locking down both sides for 1 catch on the day, as the defense only surrendered one slant TD, both Stingley and Ricks made sure the SEC was on notice:
The two best corners in the game were now on the field at the same time....who were you going to throw at?
The answer for Vanderbilt and South Carolina? Go after the freshman.
It would be a colossal mistake.
Ripping his 2nd INT in his first 2 appearances for LSU, Eli made a carbon copy week 1 pick, leaping and reaching up to take the ball out of the air...this time it was maybe even more impressive.
Defending a perfectly thrown back shoulder throw, Eli turned square to face the ball and let the ball slap against his outstretched hands, tipping the ball back down to himself for the collection, a remarkable showcase of his primal extension, even on a bum shoulder.
Now the college football world were paying keen attention...
Although LSU would falter against Missouri and Auburn thanks to shocking displays in pass defense, Ricks still played well throughout, grabbing his 3rd interception of the year vs South Carolina in between the two losses.
Again at Tigers Stadium, Eli jammed his receiver off the line and stunted his choice route trajectory, allowing Ricks to burn inside and read the QB's easy throw.
Not only would Ricks grab his 3rd pick, he was taking this one to the end zone, commemorating his favorite Mater Dei past time with his first pick six of the year...and thus, the nickname "Pick Six" Ricks took hold.
As the season wore on, he continued to show his seasoned greatness, batting away 2 passes from receivers against #1 Alabama, including a deflection and smash of John Metchie which was beautiful in its brutality.
Yet the crowning moment of his freshman debut belongs on the road......back in Florida where Eli went to IMG, only this time deep in the Swamp to face a quarterback who claimed he was Joe Burrow's clone.
Eli Ricks wasn't having any of that trash...
Despite the fear & intimidation his game supplied for most opponents, Eli usually keeps his feelings closer to the vest, preferring to let his game do the talking for him...but when LSU's stoic cornerback pulled off the greatest of plays vs Trask's #6 Florida, even he finally let it all hang out....accordingly, the swaggering dominance could be hard for some opponents to accept.
The California powerhouse came under fire for his on-field celebration vs South Carolina, turning back to flash the peace sign as he waltzed in for his first ever collegiate pick six. As he went to the bench, Bo Pelini could be seen losing it at the freshman.....however, nothing could prepare anyone for the "Moonwalk Wrath" antics he'd employ on his way to the end zone vs Florida:
After Trask unsuccessfully tested Ricks on his first throw of the night, he tried to squeeze the ball in over the shallow middle, only for the LSU corner to sneak in front of the throw for his 4th interception of the year, racing to the house in wide open real estate.
At the end of his return, Eli controversially turned to face the onrushing Trask in hot pursuit, spinning away into the end zone's corner just as the Heisman candidate tackled the air in vain.
It was one of the weirdest ways I've seen a man score a touchdown...but it was also the coolest.
That moment told us a few things about Eli Ricks....but most of all, it showed me just how far he was willing to push the envelope to sustain his already burgeoning legacy.
"Pick Six" Ricks is the chant...the call... whoever came up with it, whether in Louisiana or California, the name rung a bell and stood as gospel truth of the young man's stunning ability to jump routes or place himself in between the receiver and the ball...we witnessed this uncanny showmanship night after night. When he wasn't intercepting passes, it was because of the opponent's complete fear in throwing towards his sideline (0/2 from Mac Jones vs Alabama for example, Ricks all over both throws).
Think about this when you wonder just how good the #1 Tiger of 2020 really is:
His current teammate, close friend and freshman All-American predecessor Derek Stingley Jr was one of, if not the greatest freshman college football player of all time, holding an outrageous 0.97 Wins Above Average rating (highest among any non quarterback in 2019) and he easily enjoyed one of the top 5 best performances ever from a cornerback...and yet, Eli Ricks played in 5 fewer games than Stingley's 2019 and caught only 2 fewer interceptions but seems to be progressing quicker at LSU (sans the National Championship experience or Stingley's three-phase abilities).
It took Eli only 19 targets to steal 4 interceptions...it was around the mid 80s before Derek Stingley took 6 out of the air during his debut season (both incredible, surreal numbers).
He also led the country with a 90.1 man coverage rating, 5 percent higher than the next highest graded corner (Derek Stingley Jr), according to Pro Football Focus College.
Every time the ball comes his way, excitement abounded...but why is he the #1 overall Tiger of 2020 as a freshman corner?
Lofty, I know...but here's why:
Not only did the young freshman perform as LSU's best 2020 defender during their worst ever season, demonstrating his cold-blooded knack for obligatory shutdown coverage or virtuoso, willing tackling, but he made plays which effected the very outcome of games.
When the LSU defense were looking for a leader, Eli grabbed 2 interceptions without Derek Stingley on the field, including his pick six TD vs #6 Florida as well as his balancing beam INT vs Miss State.
He constantly set the tone during a messy defensive season:
Opening the Florida game, Trask went right at our freshman with a slant route, only for Ricks to dip in front at the most precise moment over the top to bat it away....sending a message to Trask from the first play: "There will be no rhythm offensively tonight..."
Later on that same night, when a running back bounced outside with only an off balance Ricks in his vicinity, the future #7 regained his footing during the same motion in which he stopped the running back: launching straight into the ball carrier & stopping a sure-fire touchdown at his own 12 yard line...all as he was falling over....
As certain DBs were surrendering multiple touchdowns or 100+ yards per game, Ricks only allowed a shocking 6 catches on the season, with 3 interceptions in LSU's first 4 games (including his first ever collegiate pick six vs South Carolina).
It is remarkable how one defensive player on the worst SEC defense of all time can make such a difference in a team-reliant game like football;
That's it...that's why Ricks has to be #1 for 2020:
No other Tiger was willing to go that extra mile, take it to the limit or put it all on the line from Week 1 to Week 10 with as much consistency as Eli Ricks.
Regardless, the fact remains...Ricks put his team in the perfect position to take control and stave off the week 1 upset, Eli saved Pelini's defense from total annihilation on countless occasions via smart solo tackles, turnovers or breaking up passes, he gave the Tigers all the momentum against Florida with his pick six and brilliant plays throughout......specifically his Trask pick six, starting a dramatic change of course which altered LSU's abysmal season during their last two games.
Without Ricks on the field, this isn't even remotely possible....except if the man himself leads the charge on his way to the locker room:
Even when being tossed out of the Arkansas game for a savage (and awesome) targeting hit on a Razorbacks receiver, the freshman's playmaking and physicality both led by example for a Tigers defense struggling for any kind of consistent aggression.
Though he was ejected after only the 2nd quarter, LSU's defense stepped into another gear, and while still allowing massive chunks of yardage, finally began holding strong in the red zone.
If it weren't for Eli's defiant, all out desecration of that Arkansas wide out, nearly decapitating the young man, maybe LSU's defense aren't able to wake up from their lack of swagger.
That's what it was...the higher purpose he served...
Eli brought confidence to a defense completely devoid of energy, he made ruthless solo stops on the edge to prevent scores, forced drive-killing incompletions, & even when receiving one of only a few penalties against him all year (the red zone PI vs South Carolina) he prevented an open touchdown, blasted a few combined tackles at the goal-line on the next set of downs, and the Gamecocks were forced to settle for a soul-consuming field goal.
Later, while so many ran away and hid from LSU's historic November-December on / off field calamities, Ricks took the pain as fuel, jumping Heisman candidate Kyle Trask's throw for his second pick six of the year...all as he moved gingerly after being banged up.
Following his pick six, the Tigers didn't look back, securing one of the most desperately needed victories of the Orgeron Era.
DBU's competition for reps stiffened as yet another byproduct of the ultimate Tiger's molecular secondary play, igniting the rise of sophomore DB Jay Ward, the Georgia-native picking off 3 passes (2 vs Ole Miss) and returning one for an Eli-esque TD; Eli's absence vs Florida and parts of Ole Miss also provided priceless snaps for friend and fellow freshman corner Dwight McGlothern.
Throughout 2020, his efforts were always sacrificial for his team...something we don't see too often from "superstar" talents. Eli is unselfish, humble yet confident, proud yet self-critical, blessed with indisputable talents, invaluable athleticism and an uncanny footballing mind.
Tiger Nation....we are lucky to be watching such a player develop while wearing purple & gold.
In a season where LSU fans found themselves routinely embarrassed by the 5 brutal defeats, with little to hang our hat on, Eli Ricks' outrageous willingness for superstardom captured our imagination and our hearts, showing us all exactly how beautiful and breathtaking football can be....even amidst the most disappointing of times.
BY lonn phillips sullivan
Copyright 2021 Uninterrupted Writings Inc LLC
VS MISS STATE 1/3 (1 TD, 1 PD, 1 INT)
VS VANDY 1/4 (4 yards)
VS MIZZOU 0/1
VS SOUTH CAROLINA 0/3
VS AUBURN 0/0
VS ARKANSAS 0/1
VS A&M 0/0
VS ALABAMA 0/2 (2 PDs
VS FLORIDA 3/5 (1 PD, 1 INT)
VS OLE MISS 0/0
SHOUTOUTS: THE RICKS FAMILY!!!