In August 2019, Eli Ricks played his first game for IMG Academy. The private high school largely dedicated to athletics in Bradenton, Florida, began the season against nearby Venice High.
Venice scored on its first possession. After an IMG punt, Ricks shadowed Venice’s best wide receiver. Ricks knew from film study if he gave the receiver space at the line of scrimmage, the receiver would run a short hitch. Sure enough, the receiver sprinted a few steps upfield before turning toward the quarterback.
Ricks broke before the quarterback took his left hand off the football. He intercepted the throw and returned it for a touchdown, giving IMG early momentum in a 46-7 win. Venice didn’t score again.
If this sequence sounded familiar, Ricks essentially repeated it two weeks ago against South Carolina. With LSU leading in the second quarter, Ricks anticipated a short curl route. He stepped in front of the receiver and sprinted untouched 45 yards for a touchdown, the first of his career.
As he strode into the end zone, Ricks looked over his shoulder and raised a peace sign. Told later about the play, former IMG defensive coordinator Brett Maxie laughed. Ricks used to predict interceptions before high school games.
“That’s him, man,” Maxie said. “He knows.”
Halfway through his freshman season, the 6-foot-2 cornerback known back home as “Pick-Six Ricks” has provided one of the lone bright spots on LSU’s defense. As opposing quarterbacks avoid sophomore All-American cornerback Derek Stingley, Ricks has intercepted three passes, tying with 18 other players for the most in the country.
For Ricks, the sport that brought him to LSU rules his life. Those close to him described his relationship with football like an obsession. “Motivated isn’t a strong enough word,” said Ricks’ mother, Shauna. In high school, Ricks played through a torn labrum, drove five hours round trip almost daily for training and graduated early, every action determined by one goal: to become the best cornerback in the country. The sport represents more than a passion or job. It consumes him.
“Football is like a person, like a love for him,” Ricks’ mother said. “It’s a full-on love affair.”
• • •
Ricks’ parents began driving him to train with the best available coaches when he was 10. Reaching almost anything required a drive, one often extended by heavy traffic. They ushered Ricks from their home in Rancho Cucamonga, California, weaving an hour and a half toward the beach every Saturday morning through the suburbs of Los Angeles.
Ricks climbed stairs and ran through the sand as he drilled alongside college football players twice his age. When his needs expanded, he began working one-on-one daily with Charles Collins, a former assistant wide receivers coach with the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals. Collins lived 45 minutes away. Traffic sometimes made the commute two hours.
Collins taught Ricks how to play wide receiver, showing him tendencies and body language indicators. He instructed Ricks to use the sideline as an extra defender and anticipate double moves outside the goal line. Ricks often called to ask about technique. By the time he played cornerback, Ricks understood how to break down opposing receivers because he thought like one. To this day, his parents believe he’s a better wide receiver than cornerback.
“We didn’t have to wake him up,” Ricks’ mother said. “We didn’t have to push him. We didn’t have to persuade him. That’s what he wanted to do. Always.”
Ricks ignored typical teenage urges. He skipped homecoming. He brushed away prom. His parents begged him to see a movie, to enjoy his youth, but Ricks had no interest in anything but football. His parents wondered if he missed a regular life. Ricks said no.
The rewards of his work — appearing No. 1 on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays when he was 13, attending the Nike Opening when he was 15 — surpassed anything else. He set goals that seemed almost impossible and accomplished them, one after another, expecting nothing less than perfection.
If the LSU Tigers are to pull off what would be a massive upset next Saturday against Alabama, they’re probably going to need some help.
During Ricks’ junior year at Mater Dei, his parents drove him five hours round trip five days a week to Athletic Gaines in Calabasas. Ricks trained alongside professional athletes like running backs Todd Gurley and Saquon Barkley. He never missed a session, even commuting after Sunday church.
“They all thought he was a rookie in the NFL,” owner Travelle Gaines said.
Ricks’ actions matched a designed plan. He wanted to start in the Southeastern Conference as a true freshman, win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back and become a top-10 NFL draft pick. He transferred to IMG his senior year because of its reputation for preparing high school athletes, and the school helped him graduate early.
After study hall the day before away games, Ricks hunkered in the defensive meeting room with Maxie, who coached NFL secondaries for 19 years. As they sat together breaking down film, Ricks identified advantages based on opposing receiver’s tendencies.
“If they throw this,” Ricks often told Maxie, pointing at a specific route, “I’m taking it back.”
• • •
Early on, Ricks’ mother prevented him from playing football. She put him in basketball and karate instead. Football and its history of debilitating injuries frightened her. She hid youth football pamphlets when they arrived in the mail, lying about their whereabouts until Ricks’ father, Terence, persuaded her to let their son play when he was 7. Ricks dropped karate.
“If you’re going to do this, you better do it right, and you better be good at it,” Ricks’ mother told him. “I’m perfectly happy if you don’t want to do this. That makes me nervous anyway.”
Ricks’ mother got over her fears to support her son’s passion. She found the best local trainers and facilities. As workouts increasingly dominated Ricks’ schedule, his parents realized if they wanted to understand him, they needed to turn commutes into family time.
On those long drives, Ricks’ younger brother rode in the backseat. The family ate meals around training sessions. They watched Ricks inside, or if the gyms were crowded, they waited in the car. They spent holidays and Mother's Days at football fields. Once, they drove 26 hours through a snowstorm for an all-star game in Texas.
“We wanted to show him if you want something, you can have it,” Ricks’ mother said. “You can do it.”
Constant observation made Ricks’ parents experts of his mannerisms. They recognized when he felt injured or sick, even though he never mentioned pain, playing through a 103-degree fever in youth football and pneumonia in high school.
Able to notice when Ricks was shielding an injury, his mother realized late in his junior year he favored his left shoulder. Ricks told Mater Dei’s coaches that doctors approved his health, and he told his parents Mater Dei’s athletic trainers cleared him. Rick never acknowledged an injury, but once, his mother watched him struggle to lift his arm.
The clearest image of trouble for LSU is a football spiraling, descending, dropping into the hands of Alabama wide receiver Devonta Smith, who…
“I knew something was not right,” Ricks’ mother said. “His explosiveness and the types of things he would do, he wasn’t doing them. But he wouldn’t say.”
After transferring to IMG, Ricks played his entire senior year with the injury. The week before IMG’s last game, the injury became obvious when Ricks stayed on the ground after a collision. Doctors finally diagnosed a torn labrum. He scheduled surgery after the season. Ricks didn’t practice before IMG faced Hoover High in Alabama.
“You know I’m playing in this game, right?” Maxie recalled Ricks saying.
“I’m going to let you make that decision,” Maxie told him, “but know this: You have a career ahead of you.”
Maxie understood if Ricks wanted to skip his final high school game to preserve his future. The highest-rated cornerback recruit in the country, he reminded Maxie of former Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall, only taller.
Ricks’ dad didn’t come to the game because Ricks wasn’t supposed to play. But Ricks started. Throughout the game, Hoover tried to attack him. Finally, on the last play, he outran a wide receiver on a deep ball, intercepting the intended pass. IMG won 38-7. Doctors repaired the shoulder a week later.
“When you’re that gifted, you have a tendency to not work at it,” Maxie said. “He’s totally the opposite.”
• • •
As Ricks grew up around Los Angeles, his parents drove him to football camps throughout the area. At the time, Ed Orgeron coached the defense and coordinated recruiting at Southern Cal. Ricks met Orgeron at one of USC’s camps. Orgeron organized the sprint contest, and Ricks won it for his age group.
Ricks’ family clung to the charismatic coach who encouraged Ricks and the other young athletes. Ricks and Orgeron took a picture together, one Ricks’ mother wished she could find now. They never forgot the interaction.
Almost a decade later, Ricks attended the 2018 SPE Camp in Louisiana his sophomore year. His family visited LSU during the trip and reunited with Orgeron, by then head coach at LSU. Orgeron offered Ricks a scholarship.
“I’m never starstruck because we’re from California,” Ricks’ mother said. “You see movie stars everywhere. You see famous people everywhere. It’s no big deal. But Coach O has such a presence. I was like, ‘Oh my God, there he is.’ Coach controls the whole room.”
Ricks committed ten months later. He kept his pledge through the 2020 cycle, signed early and enrolled for spring practices while he recovered from shoulder surgery. He spent part of the coronavirus shutdown in California training with Gaines. Healed before preseason camp, Ricks asserted himself as one of LSU’s starting outside cornerbacks. Teammates noticed him stay late after practice.
Though Ricks arrived able to execute press coverage, he preferred playing off the ball so he could watch plays develop and jump routes. Maxie, who played 13 years in the NFL, said playing off is a harder technique to master because cornerbacks must “respect every move the receiver makes.”
When he was named LSU’s athletic director in April 2019, Scott Woodward described his affinity for his alma mater as “a love affair that doesn…
Defensive backs can dictate movement more in press coverage with their leverage, but by playing off the receiver, Ricks baited quarterbacks into mistakes. The technique worked in high school; Ricks had nine interceptions his junior year, including three returned for touchdowns in one game.
“He plays those games with quarterbacks,” Maxie said. “If you don’t study him, you’d keep throwing it out there. He’ll continue to intercept the ball and take it back.”
Ricks didn’t arrive as a completed product. The pandemic delayed his physical growth, forcing him to rely on anticipation and mental preparation this season. He needs to add weight to cover the biggest receivers in the SEC and tackle running backs. Orgeron wants him to tame celebrations. Ricks ripped off his helmet after his first career interception. Orgeron wished Ricks didn’t taunt South Carolina players on his pick-six.
“I’m going to give him a mulligan on that one,” Orgeron said, “but he ain’t getting a mulligan again.”
After losing two games in high school, Ricks graduated accustomed to winning. He expected immediate success when he signed as a five-star recruit in the midst of LSU’s undefeated national championship season. Instead, LSU entered its open date this weekend 2-3. The losses have devastated Ricks.
“I hope he’s eating,” Ricks’ mother said before LSU lost to Auburn 48-11, the program’s worst defeat since 1996. “I already know he’s not sleeping.”
It might not matter how many games LSU wins during Ricks’ career, however long it lasts. Whenever Ricks collected another accolade growing up, his mother thought, "We should've dreamed bigger." He wants to win, but he has such high expectations, he may never reach them.
Ricks competes with himself more than the opponent, working on something every day to improve his skillset, his relentless passion for football steering his life in the direction he always envisioned. As long as he plays the sport, Ricks will continue to identify flaws and try to correct them, hoping to obtain perfection. He never feels satisfied. His drive never ends.