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Can former Trojan Ricky Town reinvent himself at Ventura College?

Can former Trojan Ricky Town reinvent himself at Ventura College?
Ricky Town (8) waits in line during a passing drill at USC as Cody Kessler (6) takes his turn on Aug. 8, 2015. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

About 50 miles northwest of Hollywood, not long after Sam Darnold ended an exhausting session as the star of the Pac-12 Conference’s media days, a quarterback offered a ball up into the swirling winds of Ventura.

A receiver sprinted underneath and caught it for a touchdown.

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"OK!" a teammate yelled from the sideline at the quarterback. "OK, I see you Ricky Town!"

Stripped of context, Town’s presence here would not be considered abnormal, and it would not qualify his career as a bust. He’d committed to Alabama but flipped to USC, then transferred less than two weeks into training camp, to Arkansas. He never sniffed the field, but he worked hard and stayed out of trouble. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema wished him well as Town returned home to Ventura College, a junior-college stopover, to seek a Division I starting job.

The trouble is, Town once promised all that Darnold has become — or at least he was told he did by coaches, recruiting services and just about everyone else. The Trojans offered him a scholarship before they did Darnold. By early 2014, a consensus of scouting services ranked him the No. 1 prospect in his class.

The designation trailed him like an anchor.

"You can blame recruiting sites like ourselves," said Brandon Huffman, director of recruiting for Scout.com. "You can blame us because we crowned him. We ranked him No. 1. And a lot of times that does put pressure unnecessarily on kids."

Standing near the sideline, Ventura coach Steve Mooshagian said when Town came to the program, "I don't want to use the word that he was a little 'gun-shy,' but he was very tentative. He was afraid to throw an interception, afraid to throw a bad ball. And it didn't seem like he was having fun."

Former Ventura St. Bonaventure High quarterback Ricky Town eyes his receiver against the Rancho Santa Margarita High defense at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo on Sept. 21, 2012.
Former Ventura St. Bonaventure High quarterback Ricky Town eyes his receiver against the Rancho Santa Margarita High defense at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo on Sept. 21, 2012. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Mooshagian said the key to Town's reinvention is simple: Learn to love playing again.

Mooshagian's goal is to reverse a process that began in Town's sophomore year of high school, when he moved from Chaminade to play for Ventura St. Bonaventure. The big debate in recruiting circles was whether Town or Josh Rosen, now at UCLA, was the next big quarterback. Most chose Town.

Town's father, Ricky Sr., told Bleacher Report in 2014 that his son received 125 letters on the first day colleges were allowed to send them. He received at least 7,000 in all.

"It definitely forces you to grow up pretty quick," the younger Town said after his workout was over. "There's a lot of things that you have to deal with. There's a lot of people that are counting on you and trying to manipulate you."

Trouble began before Town's junior season when St. Bonaventure fired coach Todd Therrien. Town had to adjust to a third coach in three years. Then he injured his knee. Before it had fully healed, he was back at recruiting camps. It was a mistake.

"He looked like a completely different quarterback than he did the year before," Huffman said. "You're looking at him as a sophomore thinking, 'Oh my gosh, he's this good now, how good is he going to be in two years?' To now, 'Oh my gosh, what happened?'"

Everyone had theories. Everyone shared those theories.

"Imagine trying to take golf lessons from dozens of different coaches a year, each with their own ideas on how to create the perfect swing," Town Sr. said in 2014.

Town's confidence disappeared. He hesitated. He held onto the ball too long.

He, not Darnold, was the jewel of USC's class, but he struggled in his first spring with the Trojans. His transfer came as a shock, and he still prefers to not talk about it. There was no single thing that made him leave, he said. He left it at that.

"He's kind of just buried all that from the past," Mooshagian said.

Arkansas fans greeted his transfer with elation.

"There was that perception out there that Ricky Town's Tim Tebow or something, he's the savior," said Bob Holt, a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette who has covered the Razorbacks since 1981.

Town liked the coaches at Arkansas, but he was buried on the depth chart. Bielema told reporters that Town "was deficient in 'Hoganese,'" Bielema's term for Arkansas' offensive language. It was as if "we're speaking French to him," Bielema said.

Mooshagian has known Town for years, but by the time he enrolled at Ventura this winter, "It was hard to even have a conversation with him," Mooshagian said. "I think he didn't know who to trust."

Ventura has become a popular spot for revival. Its previous two quarterbacks have been Division I rebounds: Ty Gangi (who came from Colorado and went on to Nevada) and Jake Luton (Idaho, Oregon State).

Six Ventura quarterbacks since 2013 have ended up on Division I teams. Brad Odeman transferred to San Diego State, Case Cookus to Northern Arizona, Conor Regan to Northern Colorado and Michael Goggin to Idaho State.

I think there's always expectations, especially coming from where I came from and whatnot and my past


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"They can come here and they can take that freakin' weight off their shoulders," Mooshagian said.

Town has gained visible confidence since the spring. He doubts less. He overthinks less. Family members have given him his space.

"I think finally he's just said, 'Look, let me do this on my own here. I don't want anybody telling me what to do. I'm going to make my own mind up,'" Mooshagian said. "And I respect that."

Mooshagian believes quarterbacks often thrive at Ventura because there is nothing to lose.

"I think there's always expectations, especially coming from where I came from and whatnot and my past," Town said. "But it's definitely nice to just have the ball in my hands again and just do my thing. Yeah, it feels good to just relax a little bit and know that I'm the guy here and just enjoy it for what it is."

Town believes he can still make an impact for a Division I team. He wants to find somewhere he can start.

After the workout was over, Mooshagian walked toward the sideline with Town.

"I'm just glad he's smiling and having fun," the coach said.

He put his arm on Town's shoulder, and Town let out a laugh.

"That's what I told him," Mooshagian said. "The first time, I said, 'Ricky, are you having fun yet?' And he said, 'I'm starting to.'"

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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