SAN ANTONIO - The mask goes on in sticky, smudgy stripes.

Holding the nub of an Easton eyeblack stick, Ricky Elmore covers his eyes, cheeks and chin.

He changes.

The Arizona Wildcats' standout defensive end morphs from Ricky, the well-adjusted college student, into a person he's just beginning to understand.

"It helps me get more tuned in," Elmore said Monday. "It's a mask. You put on your mask, and you go out there to do your thing."

Few UA players have done more - and received less credit - this season than Elmore, a 6-foot-5-inch, 260-pound senior from Simi Valley, Calif. He enters Wednesday's Alamo Bowl game against No. 16 Oklahoma State as the Pac-10 leader in sacks (11), and is fourth in the conference with 13 tackles-for-loss.

Yet the 22-year-old Elmore remains somewhat of a mystery, even to his own teammates. Despite leading the conference in what may be the most important defensive statistic, Elmore failed to make the All-Pac-10 team for the second straight season. Elmore wasn't even his own team's defensive MVP - that went to fellow end Brooks Reed.

Not even Reed, Elmore's closest friend on the team, can figure it out.

"I know he's my teammate, and I may be biased, but Ricky's the most underrated player in the Pac-10," Reed said.

Elmore's also his own man, a fact that runs counter to the all-for-one attitude in most locker rooms. He's been dating former UA softball player Callista Balko for four years. Together, they have a dog, a boxer named Bruce. Elmore's closest friend is his twin brother Cory, a former Wildcats teammate who has reinvented himself as a bodybuilder.

Ricky Elmore admits he doesn't watch much football, outside of Pac-10 games; he prefers comic books and superheroes.

The different hobbies and priorities can make Elmore seem aloof.

He's not.

"That's just his demeanor," defensive coordinator Tim Kish said. "He's not one that will really jump out into the spotlight all the time. He enjoys being to himself, and that's a good thing. You've got to have mixed personalities."

Reed calls Elmore "a good character guy."

For Elmore, balance is a way to keep his sanity during the course of a long and stressful season. He clashed often with head coach Mike Stoops and defensive ends coach Jeff Hammerschmidt earlier in his career and often took the stresses home.

By separating football and his personal life, Elmore has found peace.

"I think in order to make football a long-lasting lifestyle, you need to have time to separate. That's why I try to have things outside of football, whether that's my girlfriend, my dog or volunteering," he said. "If your mind's wrapped around it all the time, you're going to have a breakdown sooner or later. When it's time to go to work, you go to work."

Elmore's mask is applied every game day, after the UA's pre-game stretch and before kickoff. He applies the eyeblack - always Easton brand, always a stick - to the middle and sides of his face, forming a mask that's part WWE, part Marvel Comics.

Reed swears he's even seen Elmore apply it, eyeliner-style, to his lids and eyebrows.

"I don't wanna give away too many secrets," Reed said with an impish smirk, "but I think he got lessons from his mom or something."

Elmore's used to the ribbing.

Childhood friends and some UA teammates have begged him to stop the pre-game routine - or to at least wash the black stuff off after the games.

Which means, of course, that Elmore will continue to do it. The Wildcats' underrated end is at his best when he's proving people wrong.

"I've always been under the radar, but that's what's helped me get to where I am," he said. "I always fight my way back. People doubt me, and then I prove them wrong. I wouldn't have it any other way."