The more he talked about the moment, the wider LSU sophomore cornerback Eli Ricks’ smile got.
He acknowledged having discussions with his position coach Corey Raymond on end zone etiquette after returning interceptions for touchdowns, which Ricks did twice during his freshman season with the Tigers.
“He talked to me about it,” Ricks said during Tuesday’s interview via Zoom with local media. “It was real impulsive. I hadn’t planned it before. I was just excited. Scoring a touchdown in Tiger Stadium, I was excited. That’s where that came from.”
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Ricks, who finished his prep career at national powerhouse IMG Academy, showed he had a flair for the dramatic with a team-high four interceptions including one each for TDs in Southeastern Conference wins over South Carolina and Florida.
Ricks’ interceptions, two of which came in back-to-back weeks against Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, were examples of his immense talent and desire to flourish alongside first team All-American cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. in the same secondary. He expected to repeatedly get tested in his first season where he believed opposing quarterbacks would find him to be a better option, instead of going at Stingley who registered six interceptions as a freshman during the Tigers’ 2019 15-0 national championship season.
“I really wanted all the balls I could get last year,” Ricks said. “I wanted the most experience I could get. We only had a 10-game season, so I wanted all of the opportunities I could get. I wasn’t surprised being a freshman. Having Derek Stingley on the other side of me helps a lot. Even with him down a bit, I expected it a bit.”
Stingley missed three of LSU’s 10 games during a COVID-shortened 2020 season in which the Tigers finished 5-5 by closing out the year with wins at then sixth-ranked Florida and Ole Miss.
Ricks was one of the constants in an often riddled secondary, having played in all 10 of his team’s games with 20 tackles to go along with nine passes defensed.
“How much technique mattered,” Ricks said of one of the bigger revelations after his first season. “How much of a difference that it made coming in as a freshman and being raw with the technique that I had. Just focusing on the plays and relying on the technique that I worked hard on.”
Ricks, a mid-term graduate who enrolled at LSU in January of 2020, missed this spring’s workouts because of a shoulder injury. But he was able to return for the start of the team’s pre-season camp with an idea of building on his first season and teaming with Stingley to form one of the nation’s top cornerback tandems.
Both players were named to the watch list of the Bednarik Award, symbolic of the nation’s top defensive player. Ricks is also a Walter Camp preseason All-American after earning Freshman All-America honors and third team All-America laurels from The Associated Press.
He’s got bigger goals for LSU’s defense which statistically was the worst in school history last season, allowing 35 points a game. It was a unit that was constantly victimized by the big play, a theme he believes will be curtailed by the arrival of first-year defensive coordinator Daronte Jones.
“We’re with each other in the same meeting room, going over everything,” Ricks said. “Practice, walk-throughs and reviewing everything. Slowing it down, going over corrections. Making sure we’re all on the same page. The communication is much clearer now.”
When asked of potential of this year’s defense, which returned its entire interior line, and has an improved secondary, Ricks responded:
“The best defense in the country. The sky’s the limit. That’s where our aspirations are. We want to be the best defense in the country.”
Ricks said since his arrival at LSU, it’s been commonplace to seek advice from Stingley, who is a projected first-round selection in the 2022 NFL draft. Although he garnered plenty of buzz at both Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif. and IMG Academy, received a five-star rating and was listed as the No. 1 player as a senior in Florida, Ricks has always held Stingley in high regard both on and off the field.
“Whatever advice I need, I always come to him and ask him because he’s already done it before,” Ricks said. “He’s done things I have aspirations for. We push each other a lot. With two corners like us, a quarterback’s going to have to throw it one way. We work hard to keep our games top tier.”
Despite the astronomical yards the defense yielded last season, especially through the air, there were flashes that Ricks had the ability to live up to his advance billing as one of the nation’s top incoming freshman and compliment Stingley. But it became evident that with Stingley out of the lineup for three games, a significant amount of the burden shifted to Ricks in the secondary.
The first two interceptions of Ricks’ career were textbook moments where he gained inside position on intended receivers from Mississippi State and Vanderbilt to come down with picks both times.
Ricks’ momentum picked up steam in a home game with South Carolina when he perfectly jumped a route for a 45-yard touchdown that gave LSU a comfortable 31-10 halftime lead in a game the Tigers went on to win, 52-24.
Five weeks later and the Tigers staring at a potential losing season, Ricks was part of an inspired effort at Florida that carried the team to an improbable 37-34 victory after Cade York’s 57-yard field goal in a dense fog.
LSU broke a 7-7 tie early in the second quarter when Ricks again jumped a route, intercepting eventual second-round NFL draft pick Kyle Trask and returning it 68 yards for a TD that fueled a 17-point second quarter for a 24-17 halftime lead.
Near the end of his run Ricks, who was all alone down the sideline, slowed up at the 2-yard line and backed into the end zone over the remaining two yards with Trask giving chase.
“I expected a big year, but it probably clicked around the South Carolina game,” Ricks said. “Overall, I felt as a player, I was all the way in. I was learning weekly and every new week I was learning something new. By the South Carolina game, it started getting easier for me and I started locking in.”