Ricks making his unwelcome return to Tiger Stadium

NUMBER 1 TIGER TARGET:  Eli Ricks, once a budding superstar cornerback for LSU (shown here in 2021), will be the focus of Tiger fans’ ire Saturday night as he returns to Baton Rouge with the Alabama Crimson Tide. (Photo courtesy of LSU Athletics)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE — There’s plenty of reasons why LSU and Alabama just don’t like each other.

There’s Nick Saban, who turned the LSU football program on its ear when he won a National Championship in 2003 and did it again just two seasons later when he left for the Miami Dolphins. In the decade-plus since leaving the NFL ranks for Alabama, he’s become one of the most widely disliked figures in Tiger Town.

Eli Ricks, on the other hand, isn’t there just yet.  But he’s certainly not going to be welcomed back into Tiger Stadium tonight when No. 6 ‘Bama visits 15th-ranked LSU at 6 o’clock in an ESPN-televised SEC West showdown.

Once regarded as LSU’s gold-standard cornerback of the future, Ricks cut that storyline short when he entered the transfer portal in November 2021. He decided on Saban and the Crimson Tide a month later and Tiger fans angrily recoiled in disgust.

Ricks’ time in Tuscaloosa had a tumultuous spring – the junior was arrested in May for speeding, driving without insurance and first possession of marijuana. Then came the start of the college football season, which saw the LSU starter buried on the Tide’s depth chart. There was even a cryptic message Ricks posted on social media in October that suggested he may have had interest in returning to LSU.

Ricks’ stay on the end of the bench – whether it be for his off-field behavior or simply lack of production – ended after the Crimson Tide was torched for 385 passing yards and five touchdowns by Tennessee two weeks ago.

Last week, in his first start for Alabama, Ricks tied for the team lead with four pass breakups on his way to receiving national acclaim — the Bednarik Award Player of the Week, honoring the most outstanding defensive player of the week in major college football.

“Eli just had to go through a lot of transitions here in terms of what he had learned before and trying to learn our system and getting confident in it,” Saban said during Wednesday’s SEC teleconference. “We always thought he could be a really good player. I thought he played well in the last game. Hopefully he’ll be able to build on that and stay focused on the things that he needs to do to execute well at his position.”

Ricks had become a battle-tested starter by the time his LSU career came to an end, but his biggest challenge comes Saturday. He’s felt the atmosphere in Death Valley when the crowd was behind him, now he’ll have to face that atmosphere when the crowd is against him.

What makes Ricks’ college football journey equal parts frustrating and shocking for LSU fans is that his journey is unprecedented. He used the transfer portal to its most extreme extent, not choosing just another school, but switching to a team in the same division of the same conference, to a head coach that’s brought both programs to the highest ranks of college football, and to a fanbase that holds a particular disdain for LSU fans (and vice versa).

In short, Ricks couldn’t have picked a worse place to transfer if he wanted to leave Baton Rouge graciously.

In doing so, however, he became the SEC poster child for the transfer portal: leaving a situation that no longer served his purpose to find another that would, no matter where that might be.

But Eli’s not the only Ricks that’s stoking the fire between LSU and Alabama. Younger brother Desmond is a five-star corner in the Class of 2023, and he’s narrowed his choices down to  three: LSU, Alabama and Florida. He’ll be in Baton Rouge on an unofficial visit Saturday night.

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on big brother. Saban knows that.

“I think it’s important that he just goes into this game and be himself. He doesn’t need to think he has to do something fantastic just because he’s playing against a team he used to play for,” Saban said.

That’s one perspective. But here’s a more popular one in Baton Rouge – it’s time for Eli Ricks to face the music he created a year ago.

LSU fans will be sure he hears it.

Contact Ryne at rgberthelot@gmail.com