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Meet the man with the toughest job in the Big 12

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Before taking one look at the name on his diploma and deciding you don’t like him, first consider that new Kansas offensive line coach A.J. Ricker once inspired a big ovation from you at Memorial Stadium.

“Out on that field right there, with Brad Smith at quarterback, he was (calling an audible) and I snapped it early and he wasn’t ready for it,” said Ricker, a 2003 first-team All-Big 12 center at Missouri. “I never thought you could shotgun-snap a ball 20 yards. I sure did.”

And the fans cheered. Not that Ricker’s face could have turned any redder than it already had.

“The worse feeling in the world is when you’re playing the line, you’re blocking a guy, and his eyes get big,” Ricker said. “Why is nobody doing anything? And you turn around and Brad Smith is trying to get the 20-yard shotgun snap.”

The verbal darts sent on walks from the visiting locker room to the team bus, those he enjoyed. Such is the fate of a visiting player in a big-time rivalry. You get to play the role of villain, which can bring out the best in competitors.

“I just remember going in the parking lot, whether it was the cheerleaders or whoever it was, giving you nice gestures,” Ricker said. “Man, it was awesome. The only thing that got corny to me, when we beat each other we would tear down the goalposts. I’m like, ‘What are we doing?' It’s a rivalry.”

On hiatus to the chagrin of Ricker and players from both sides of the Border War.

“I like rivalries,” Ricker said. “Growing up in Texas, Texas and Texas A&M don’t play anymore. I was a part of Missouri-Illinois, that border-war game. Nobody wants to play that game to open up the season. I get that, but it is kind of sad seeing those rivalries going away.”

Bitter feelings have a way of lingering.

“I heard from teammates,” Ricker said of going to work for the other side. “They’ll all never talk to me, that’s what they say. They would all do the same thing obviously. The rivalry has kind of gone away. That’s what’s crazy. They don’t play each other anymore. I did have to hear about it for about a week. (Former Missouri coach Gary) Pinkel texted me congratulating me.”

Missouri went 11-3 in Ricker’s first season as Pinkel’s offensive line coach, lost his job when Pinkel retired and then went to Illinois, but it was short stay because the Illini made a coaching change, hiring Lovie Smith.

“So Lovie cut me for a third time,” Ricker said.

Smith was coach of the Chicago Bears when he cut Ricker.

“Twice,” Ricker said. “Not once, but twice. … Lovie’s a great coach. I get it. Obviously, being in the profession, I get it.”

He no doubt also gets that job openings don’t come about if everything was going great for the predecessor.

It’s easy to make the case that Ricker has the toughest job in the Big 12. Exhibit A: Kansas doesn’t have enough healthy bodies at O-line to play a spring football game and instead will hold a public practice, 1 p.m. Saturday.

Left tackle Hakeem Adeniji (shoulder surgeries) and right guard Chris Hughes and reserve tackle Cam Durley have been limited by injuries this spring and were unavailable to play in the spring game, which left KU with nine healthy offensive linemen. Returning center Mesa Ribordy retired from football because of a concussion history.

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