It seems A.J. Ricker was destined to play in this year’s Independence Bowl. The only question was which side he would be on. Ricker, a senior center, has started all 46 games of his career at Missouri and is likely to make it 47 against Arkansas in the Independence Bowl at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 31 in Shreveport, La.
Starting from day one, Ricker has been the lynchpin of Missouri’s offensive line for four years, but he almost ended up a Razorback. Ricker committed to Arkansas in high school but changed his mind later and wound up a Tiger. In the end, Ricker’s desire to play early and often nudged him toward Missouri.
“I committed to Arkansas, and three days later, coach (Andy) Moeller at Missouri called me,” Ricker said. “He said, ‘I can’t believe you committed to Arkansas.’ So, I said I was going to Missouri. Then coach (Bobby) Allen called me from Arkansas. I was just back and forth.”
Ricker said his official visit to Arkansas was his last visit, and he committed at the end of the visit. Ricker remembers telling coach Houston Nutt he was going to Arkansas, and at the time, it seemed like a done deal.
“It was on that Sunday when you go meet with Coach Nutt,” Ricker said. “I told him I was gonna become a Hog. I remember buying a bunch of shirts and hats at the Wal-Mart there in Fayetteville. They’re probably still in my closet somewhere at home.”
Arkansas fans shouldn’t be entirely upset with Ricker, though. Although he didn’t commit, he might have had a hand in the Razorbacks landing star running back Cedric Cobbs.
“Everyone was talking about Cobbs, so I was like, ‘If I come here, Cobbs better come here,’” Ricker said. “I remember making that statement in the paper.”
Not long after, Cobbs committed to Arkansas. He wound up sticking to his commitment, but Ricker withdrew his and signed with Missouri.
In 2000, when Missouri coach Larry Smith was fired, Ricker almost had to go home and dig out that Razorbacks memorabilia in the closet. Ricker felt betrayed when the coach who recruited him was let go, and he wrestled with the idea of transferring to Arkansas.
“I’d never been through the firing of a head coach, and I just said, ‘I’m outta here,’” Ricker said. “That was kind of immature of me. I’m glad I stayed here. I told my dad to call one of their coaches. I don’t know if he ever did or not, but I ended up staying here.”
Ricker said the longer he thought about leaving, the more serious the idea got, and it was an especially enticing notion because he wouldn’t have lost any eligibility to transfer after Smith’s firing. Only Ricker knows how close he came to being a Razorback the second time around.
“I don’t know,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “I never thought about it.”
Ricker’s senior linemate, tackle Rob Droege, said Ricker wasn’t the only one who contemplating getting out of Missouri when Smith was fired. Droege said it was Pinkel who persuaded most of the Tigers to stay put.
“How close did all of us come,” Droege said. “There were days when each of us had to pull each other up. We all talked about it. When Coach Pinkel came here, you realized by the way he talked and the kind of person he was that things were gonna turn around.”
Ricker and Droege decided to stay together at Missouri, and it has paid off for everyone involved. Both earned All-Big 12 Conference honors, Droege was named to the first team, Ricker to the second, and they anchor the Tigers’ running game, which ranks eighth nationally. Pinkel said their contributions are not always visible outside the program, though.
“I think they’ve been important just as seniors who have come up, because they’ve been soldiers of the program,” Pinkel said. “From an offensive line standpoint, when you’ve got two All-Conference players, that’s huge.”
When the Independence Bowl rolls around, and Ricker suits up for his final collegiate game, the Tigers will be glad he is wearing black and gold. Senior wide receiver Darius Outlaw counts his blessings every time he thinks about Ricker blocking for Brad Smith and Zack Abron rather than Cobbs and Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones.
“I’m lovin’ it, I’m lovin’ every minute of it,” Outlaw said. “He’s just such a great person and his work ethic rubs off on everyone else. I’m glad he’s on my side.”