Updated: May 16
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: