Starks takes it in stride

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Tom Silverstein
Friday, January 21, 2011
— Green Bay Packers running back James Starks and his high school football coach, Donald Bass, text each other frequently and talk whenever they can.

This week, Bass was on the phone with Starks and asked him rhetorically, “Do you realize you’re one game away from the Super Bowl?”

To which, Starks hesitated before replying: “Yeah……. I know.”

“That’s it,” Bass said. “That’s all he said. A game like this doesn’t get to him. It doesn’t faze him. He’ll rise to the level of the play around him and then perform at it.”

That has been Starks’ history anyway.

Thrust into a new role in the first round of the playoffs, Starks responded with a Packers rookie record of 123 yards on 23 carries in a 21-16 victory over Philadelphia. Then the following week he carried 25 times against Atlanta in the divisional round—albeit for a modest 66 yards—giving him 48 carries in two games.

That’s 19 more carries than he had the entire regular season.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Bass said. “They’re going to be talking about him for years to come.”

At this point, the Packers would settle for people talking about him for a week to come—or better yet, three weeks to come. Heading into the NFC Championship Game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Starks stands to be a key figure.

Starks went from inactive for two weeks—he wasn’t immersing himself in the offense the way the coaches wanted—to spot player against the Bears in the regular-season finale, and now he has become, for all intents and purposes, the Packers’ starting running back.

And that means he may have to come up big against the Bears, a rough-and-tumble bunch who would like nothing more than to plant Starks in the ground and take the ball away from him.

“No..1 goal is ball security,” running backs coach Edgar Bennett said. “That’s what these games are about. It’s fundamentals and execution.”

If you noticed that Bennett said nothing about Starks making sure he sees the hole in front of him, hits it quickly and drives his legs forward it’s because he already knows Starks will do all those things.

He can hardly contain himself when he talks about Starks’ natural ability.

“Athleticism? Oh yeah, you can see it,” Bennett said. “There’s certain things you look for: quickness, change of direction, explosiveness. But you’re also talking about a natural instinctiveness. He’s got very good vision.”

If Bennett or anyone else in the Packers organization had consulted with Bass, they could have confirmed that a long time ago. He saw the athleticism the very first day the freshman walked out on the football field at Niagara Falls (N.Y) High School.

Bass called the wiry ninth grader over after a few pre-season drills and told him that if he stayed clean and tended to his studies, he’d have a chance to get a free ride to college.

In the years to come, Starks developed into a well-sculpted power runner. His unusual height and NBA-type body (6-foot-2, 218 pounds) belie the power in his hips and legs. As coach Mike McCarthy has pointed out many times, Starks constantly falls forward for extra yards.

To understand how he came to spend those Sundays with the Packers requires some astronomical study because of the way the planets aligned to make it happen.

First, Starks eschewed offers to bigger Division I schools and stayed close to home at the University of Buffalo, where former Packers director of player development Turner Gill had just become head coach. (Gill gave the Packers a glowing recommendation of him)

Second, Starks ended up rooming at Buffalo with the son of Packers scout Alonzo Highsmith, a running back as well.

Third, Starks missed his senior year with a shoulder injury, and not too many people n the NFL went back and studied his sophomore and junior tapes. (The Packers already were clued in.)

Finally, the Chicago Bears had Starks on the phone on draft day and were about to make him the 12th pick in the sixth round, when they quickly did an about-face and drafted quarterback Dan LeFevour instead. (Twelve picks later, the Packers took Starks)

“I knew I’d get an opportunity somewhere,” Starks said this week. “As long as I was getting an opportunity, I’d be happy. I knew things would fall my way. Now I’m a Green Bay Packer and I’m loving it.”

The athletic bloodlines in the Starks family are rich. Jonny Flynn, a star basketball player at Syracuse and a 2009 first-round draft choice of the Minnesota Timberwolves, is a first cousin.

Flynn and Starks were on a state championship basketball team together—Starks, with his extraordinarily long arms, was the defensive stopper—and to this day Starks feels he could have made a career out of basketball. Despite Flynn’s success, Bass said there was never any doubt whom the better athlete was.

“He easily was the best athlete this school has ever had,” Bass said.

Starks decided to go to Buffalo because Gill told him he could play quarterback, but soon after he got there, he was moved to running back. It wasn’t much of a transition. He rushed for 704 yards as a freshman and then topped the 1,000-yard mark each of the next two years.

“The kid is so long,” said Allen Mogridge, Stark’s first running backs coach at Buffalo and now an assistant with North Carolina. “And he’s powerful. He’s lean and tall. I think it blew people away to see someone like that.

“His freshman year, before games when guys were walking around the field, I remember looking at people’s faces and they’d start at his feet and go to his head and be amazed someone could be so long.”

Starks came from a poverty-stricken area in Niagara Falls, but through the guidance and hard work of his mother, he developed an even-mannered disposition, which included a smile wider than the spectacle for which his hometown was named.

Said Mogridge: “For him to come as far as he has is a testament to his dedication and focus. He knows where he came from. He takes pride in how far he has come but would never say that. He’s as humble of a dude as there is.”

Starks’ injury problems prior to this season have been well documented. A hamstring injury kept Starks out of off-season workouts, and when he strained it again in training camp, he was left on the physically unable to perform list.

It took until Week 11 before he was finally activated to the 53-man roster. At one point, Starks told Bass he thought the Packers were going to cut him, but Bass told him there was no chance.

Starks broke out with a 73-yard performance against San Francisco on Dec. 5, but late in the year, coach Mike McCarthy didn’t feel he could trust him to carry out every assignment. Starks was put on notice that he needed to study harder. After two weeks of inactivity, he was activated for the second Bears game and really was the only running back who had any success carrying the ball that day (5 carries for 20 yards).

“I think he needed to study more and immerse himself in the playbook,” Bass said. “That’s what helped him. A lot of things come easy for him and he probably thought it wasn’t a big deal: ‘I can pick this up.’

“But they needed to know it meant as much to him as it did to them.”

When Starks broke out against Philadelphia, one of the most noticeable things about him was his smile every time he had a good run. He broke one long run in the game, but the Packers think he has the ability to do it more often.

“He’s strong,” injured running back Ryan Grant said. “Physically, he can get it done. I told him he’s in the best position to do that because he doesn’t have the bumps and bruises of the season. He should be strong and fast. He’s put in the work. He’s hot right now.”

And he’s one game away from playing in the Super Bowl.

Last updated: 4:02 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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