McGrane: Ricks Hopes to Put Best Foot Forward
March 20, 2017
2016-17 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Ricks Hopes to Put Best Foot Forward
Randy Ricks is a picture of potential. Rangy, relentless, freakish in the sort of way that 6-foot-5 linebackers are freakish, defying stereotype and inspiring fear.
When he wasn't pulling double duty as a tight end/defensive end at Legacy High in Las Vegas, Ricks was a basketball player and a high jumper, a blend of power and speed and limitless possibilities.
And maddening stretches of stagnation.
For all of the things the third-year San Diego State player could be, he has mostly been a podiatrist's best friend, with toe injuries costing him 13 games the past two seasons. First, a broken toe in 2015 that left him sidelined for four games, then a turf toe in 2016 that idled him for nine more.
The second setback brought good news from the NCAA: Ricks would be granted a medical redshirt, giving him a fifth season of eligibility and another chance to prove his potential is based in reality, not rumor.
"He definitely looks the part," said Aztecs linebackers coach Zach Arnett. "Now it's just a matter of getting him to play that part every down."
In 2015, Ricks, who had transferred from Arizona Western Community College, played in five of the team's first six games before breaking his toe against Hawai'i. He missed the ensuing four games before returning the final four, making his second start of the season in the Mountain West championship game against Air Force. In nine games, he contributed 22 total tackles (five for loss) and 2.5 sacks, a testament to his time at Arizona Western, where in 2014 he posted 43 tackles, 8.5 sacks and forced three fumbles.
He opened the 2016 season on a tear, contributing 11 tackles (eight solo) and adding three tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble, two pass breakups and three quarterback hurries in starting SDSU's first four games of the season.
By game five, against UNLV, he was back on crutches, the result of a turf toe injury suffered the previous week against South Alabama. He wouldn't play the rest of the season.
"It's hard to sit back and watch your team, especially when you want to be out there and be part of the success we had," Ricks said. "I'm just glad I was able to come back for another year and do everything I can to help this team."
Ricks certainly flashed that promise in Saturday's spring game, contributing four tackles (all for loss) three sacks and breaking up two passes in an affair where the Aztec defense forced five turnovers.
"You never really forget how to play football," Ricks said. "It's feels good coming back off the injury, and it's fun being back out here playing with the guys.
"I feel like I'm a leader on this team. The coaches are always pushing me to lead, so I want to be out here and keep trying to get better. Everything you do during spring is work toward (fall) camp. You see the younger guys with another year of experience and see how much more confident they are, too. But I love the spring. I know it's helped me."
And yet nothing is set in stone. Ricks entered spring drills as No. 2 at the middle linebacker spot behind senior Jay Henderson, who also performed well Saturday with three tackles (two for loss) and a sack. Despite making just three starts last season, Henderson finished third on the team with six quarterback hurries and recorded 2.5 sacks. The other two linebackers in the Aztecs' 3-3-5 scheme are returning starters Ryan Dunn and Ronley Lakalaka.
"Clearly, (Ricks) has shown a natural ability to rush the passer," Arnett said. "He can do a lot of other things well, but that's the one thing about him that really jumps out. He just has a feel for that edge pass rush. When you lose that, it definitely affects what you can do. It's nice to be able to line up a guy who you consistently feel is going to get pressure on the quarterback, because it allows you to play true zone (pass) coverage. When you lose that, sometimes you have to manufacture pressure in other ways.
"Now, we've got a lot of other good pass rushers, too, so I don't want to say he's the only capable guy. The disappointing part is to have had him now for two years and he still hasn't been able to get through a whole season without some sort of injury. But if we can keep him healthy, we feel like he definitely gives us something at that position."
Particularly as part of a defense that finished No. 11 in the nation last season and ranked 26th in sacks with 38. No other team in the Mountain West had a ranking of higher than 44th (Utah State) in total defense in 2016, and the closest in sacks was Boise State at No. 53 (29).
As such, while it's understandable that Ricks is anxious to return to the fray, it's also why he's a regular visitor in the training room.
"I'm preparing differently now," he said. "The last two years, I wasn't in the training room like I am now. I'm listening to my body more now and I'm getting myself better prepared for the season.
"When I was hurt, I just tried to make sure that the younger guys felt like they knew what they were doing. If they had any questions, I wanted them to make sure that they could ask me. I'm one of the veterans here, so even though I was hurt, I didn't want to feel like I wasn't part of the team, or that I wasn't going to be there for my brothers. I feel like I'm 100 percent now. I'm ready to go."
Four words the Aztecs are happy to hear. As for keeping their fingers crossed? Unfortunately, for all concerned, it's a practice that's become the norm rather than the exception. Randy Ricks is the picture of potential. Now it's a matter of consistently putting it into practice.
"You can't teach speed and you can't teach length, all of those physical attributes that he has," Arnett said. "You don't develop those kinds of things on the field. Obviously, when you get somebody like that, you look around the room and say, 'Now, there's a guy who looks the part.' "
And, with any luck, plays the part. Well into December.