AU's Ricks travels tough path to 1st team
By Ross Dellenger
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AUBURN — It would be easy for Auburn's Jake Ricks to be a second-stringer for life.
But he refuses to.
Ricks doesn't have to watch the Tigers' starting defensive linemen practice. He could go fetch a drink of water or go chat with teammates.
But he doesn't.
After practice ends, he easily could head straight for the showers, get dressed, jump in his car and leave.
But he won't.
When Ricks hurt his knee on the first day of full-pad workouts during spring practice, he could have called it quits.
But he chose not to.
When he hurt his hamstring on the third day of fall practice, he could have simply given up.
But he didn't.
During his true freshman season last year, Ricks was criticized constantly by coaches.
He had the wrong technique. He was popping up or not using his hands enough. He was coming out of his stance or not using his forearms.
It was always something. It was frustrating, and he could have let it get to him.
But it never did.
The 6-foot-4, 290-pounder has spent a year dealing with the consequences that come with being a true freshman backup defensive lineman who played offensive tackle in high school and recently has been prone to injury.
But it's his approach to adversity that may soon land him in the starting rotation.
He could be playing alongside starting defensive end Sen'Derrick Marks instead of watching him during practice while standing with the other backups.
He could spend time after practice instructing younger players instead of being the one instructed.
Ricks proved he belonged on Auburn's football team by fighting through the problems during the last 12 months, but last week in one of the team's preseason scrimmages, he proved he belonged not just on the team but on the first string.
"I've been waiting for this forever," Ricks said. "I finally got in and showed them what I could do."
What he did was have five tackles, a sack and a tackle for a loss.
"I just knew I had to come out and show them because I've been out ever since the spring," he said. "I knew I had to come out and prove a point."
How big a point did he prove?
Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said that Ricks "was the most productive inside player" during that scrimmage, beating out starters Josh Thompson and Pat Sims.
"We need that from him. He's missed some time, but he's a kid that has a lot of ability," Muschamp said. "He's just got to play more."
Instead of redshirting last season — which Auburn does to most, if not all of, its true freshmen — the Muscle Shoals native played in six games and had one tackle.
It was a disappointing year for a guy who was rated as one of the top six prospects from the state of Alabama and the nation's No. 13 recruit at his position, which was offensive tackle.
His response to last season is short and sweet: "I really don't think about the past."
Ricks has worked hard to get where he is today — one step away from starting with Auburn's season opener less than a week away.
After missing all of spring practice with a wounded knee, Ricks plummeted on the depth chart.
Upon entering preseason practice, he was listed as the No. 3 defensive tackle, behind backup Tez Doolittle and starter Thompson.
A season-ending injury to Doolittle during the first week of practice cracked the door. But that same week, Ricks found himself hurt again. A hamstring injury sidelined him for two weeks of preseason camp.
"It was frustrating knowing that we had positions we were fighting for and I wasn't out there," Ricks said. "I knew I had a good summer. It was very frustrating to me."
He exploded onto the scene in the scrimmage last week, only days after returning to practice from the injury.
"It's the first time he's really been healthy this season and he graded very well," defensive line coach Don Dunn said.
Coaches aren't the only ones who have noticed Ricks' quick upturn.
"All my teammates call me fresh legs," he said. "I feel real fresh."
Ricks' recent success can be attributed to his learning attitude.
Ricks said that during practice he watches Marks because "he moves real quick." He learns from his fellow sophomore, who fell into the starting role last season as the team's defensive end opposite Quentin Groves.
Marks has spent time tutoring Ricks after practice, correcting the things that bogged him down last season.
"He'll ask me to show him my stance and how I come out and what I see," Marks said. "We'll stay after practice and go over on the dummy.
"I'll show him how to come off on the dummy like it was a real player."
For the first time since the start of two-a-days, Ricks is a healthy individual. He is slowly but surely grasping the things he never did last season, a reason he is competing for a starting role and already has won playing time.
"I just had to show the coaches once again that I can do it," he said.
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