Mathematics enthusiast T.J. Ricks isn’t certain if his passion for numbers and problem solving makes him a better football player. In his case, hard work, a recruiting slight, and a sharp, analytical mind are components of an equation for success.
Old Dominion’s senior middle linebacker winds down a career that in some ways exceeds even his own dreams, one that began as a walk-on and has seen him set records and earn all-conference honors.
“A blessing,” Ricks called his career.
“T.J. earned everything he has,” ODU head coach Bobby Wilder said.
Ricks is one of the leaders of a much-improved defense, as the Monarchs (5-3, 3-1 Conference USA) prepare to host Marshall (2-6, 1-3 C-USA) on Saturday on ASN.
ODU is fifth in the conference in scoring defense (29.1 ppg), fourth in total defense (407.5 ypg), and No. 3 in opponents’ third-down conversions (35.7%) – all significant leaps from the past two seasons as the program transitioned into the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“It’s experienced guys who played at a young age, early in their careers,” Ricks said. “We have a grasp of the defensive schemes now. We watch film together. We’ve learned to trust each other.”
Ricks is emblematic of the improvement. He had zero scholarship offers after a quality, if under-the-radar prep career in Hampton, Va. A handful of schools recruited him as a preferred walk-on, and he chose ODU because of the proximity to home, the family vibe that the coaching staff conveyed, and the program’s success as a start-up and burgeoning FCS power.
“I knew I was good,” Ricks said of the frustration over his recruitment. “It basically lit a fire under me. I always worked hard and had a chip on my shoulder. So all the hard work paid off.”
Indeed, Wilder said that Ricks was a recruiting target, but that a scholarship numbers crunch in that particular class prevented the Monarchs from offering. He promised Ricks and his parents that he would have every opportunity to earn a scholarship, and he made good on his word just before the 2014 season.
Ricks’ emergence was gradual and constant. He redshirted his first year and earned a spot on special teams and backup linebacker as a redshirt freshman. As a sophomore he made 10 starts and was second on the team in tackles.
Last season, he led Conference USA in tackles (123), setting the ODU single-season and single-game records, with 18 tackles in a win against Charlotte. He was voted second-team all-conference. He again leads the Monarchs with 66 tackles and is on pace to finish as the program’s No. 2 career tackler.
Quiet by nature, Ricks has worked on becoming a more vocal leader, though Wilder said that he naturally leads with his actions.
“He’s not going to say a lot, but he’s going to do all the right things,” Wilder said. “He’s going to practice hard, he’s going to do well in school. He’s great in the community. He’s a pretty special young man.”
For the second consecutive season, Ricks was nominated for the Brandon Burlsworth Trophy, which goes to the most outstanding FBS player who began his career as a walk-on. It’s named for the former Arkansas offensive lineman who walked on and became an All-American and NFL draft choice, but was killed in a car crash in 1999.
“He’s become a very smart football player,” defensive coordinator Rich Nagy said. “You can make certain strides, athletically, as a football player, but you can make more strides mentally. Your understanding of the game can make you a much better player. He’s got good ability, don’t get me wrong, but he’s really made his niche on the mental side of things.”
Ricks, 6-1 and 235 pounds, retooled his body along the way. He entered ODU, he said, at 238 pounds, but with 18 percent body fat. He is stronger, faster and leaner, with 7-8 percent body fat. And smarter.
“The biggest challenge to a coach,” Wilder said, “is always trying to help your players process information quickly, and T.J.’s really good at processing information. He’s an engineering major, he’s a numbers guy. It comes easier to him than to a lot of players. I’m always impressed with his ability to process information, week to week.”
An electrical systems technology major who eventually wants to build computers, Ricks doesn’t process information quite as rapidly as the circuit boards with which he works. But it’s close. It’s all added up to a remarkable career.