WVU football: Starks has made sudden, unanticipated impact
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- What hasn't changed for Bradley Starks in a season where he's changed so many things about and around him is that West Virginia's play-making receiver is still being asked about his health.
Only now the questions aren't intended to discover when he'll be healthy, but to make sure he still is.
Instead of being asked what it's like to be held back by a shaky shoulder or a grumpy groin, he's invited to talk about being what he defined as "100 percent."
"It's fun," he said. "Injuries are part of football and you're going to have to go through some bumps and bruises, but obviously you'd rather be playing."
Starks was a sizeable void the first four games of the season and his only contributions in West Virginia's 3-1 start were two penalties.
He didn't record another statistic in victories against Coastal Carolina, Marshall and Maryland and the loss at LSU when the offense could have used something from someone that would have distinguished the Mountaineers from who they were that September night in Tiger Stadium.
WVU passed 29 times and completed 14 for 119 yards. None of the completions went more than 19 yards and the LSU secondary was able to stay with receivers and come under routes without fear of deep retribution.
A week later, Starks, who had injured his groin in camp and his shoulder against Marshall, finally felt good. He played great. Starks caught four passes for 100 yards and three touchdowns - including two that were longer than any previous pass play in the season.
It was as sudden and needed as it was unanticipated. In the first 25 games of his career, he caught three touchdowns.
Starks, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound junior from Unionville, Va., needed not just time to make the complete conversion from quarterback to receiver, but to also develop and sustain his physical well-being.
"Playing quarterback is almost a different kind of sport," he said. "It's definitely not as simple as everyone thinks. I can easily make the transition mentally. Physically, my body was not prepared for the kind of things you have to put in at wide receiver.
"The amount of running at wide receiver is just crazy. Coming from quarterback, having never played wide receiver before, your legs are not used to that ... not remotely used to that. Quarterback, maybe I sprinted sometimes, but it was more so about dropping straight back."
Starks has been sound of body and ability since after the LSU game and has 17 receptions for 261 yards and four touchdowns. Against Connecticut, he ran a reverse 53 yards for a touchdown on his only carry of the season when he zipped between a gantlet of defenders untouched and then pulled away from the pursuit.
As prophesized by his coaches during those "Wait until he's healthy" moments in the preseason, Starks is WVU's top threat entering Friday's noon game at Pitt (6-4, 4-1 Big East) at Heinz Field on ABC.
"A kid like that tends to get rewarded," said offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen, who as the team's quarterbacks coach could be coaching Starks if not for circumstances names Pat White and Jarrett Brown earlier in Smith's career. "I don't know why, but I know when you work, you ultimately get rewarded.
"I think that's just the way of the world and it shows in football, as well. Certainly that's happened with Bradley."
The Backyard Brawl has in recent years been highlighted by the presence or absence of a game-changing receiver. WVU (7-3, 3-2) had no offense in the notorious 2007 loss. A streak here, a slant there and, who knows, maybe the Mountaineers play for and even win that national title.
Two years ago, White was throwing into the end zone hoping someone would make a play as the game concluded. Last year it was Pitt's Jon Baldwin catching a 50-yard touchdown to tie the score at 16 with 2:54 to go.
"Bradley's the X factor for our offense," WVU slot receiver Jock Sanders said. "He runs past people and gives us a tall target. He's another dimension to our offense, another explosive part of the offense. You can throw it up to him anytime and he can go get it."
Starks has the team's longest run and reception this season - and who knows when he'll get a chance to throw. He caught the game's first pass Saturday against Louisville for his only stat, but he later earned a penalty for Louisville when he ran past a cornerback, which sort of underlines his status.
His yards per catch and, of course, yards per rush are the best on the team and he has five touchdowns on just 18 touches.
Sanders has as many touchdowns on nine runs, 54 catches and 12 special teams returns. Tavon Austin has five touchdowns on 45 receptions, 12 rushes and nine returns. Noel Devine has a team-high seven touchdowns on 184 carries, 28 receptions and three returns.
"Honestly," Starks said, "I work my tail off in practice. I always felt like hard work pays off. It was about sticking to it."
On a team where Sanders is the only senior receiver and Austin and J.D. Woods are sophomores, Stedman Bailey is a redshirt freshman and Ivan McCartney is a true freshman, Starks, despite his relative inexperience, has become a model for the others.
His teammates marvel at the way he tends to his body and the consistency with which he practices. They even look to him, the guy who not long ago had never really run routes, to see how he runs routes.
Starks owns the role and finds it comes natural as a former quarterback.
"I always felt no matter what I'd try to help the younger guys coming in, not only in knowing the position, but knowing the game and understanding schemes and what we try to get out of it and helping with every little tactical thing," Starks said. "Anything I can do to try to help them out, I guess I was blessed with the understanding of that."
The inclusion of Starks has changed the offense, in part because he's bigger, stronger and faster in a long run than his peers at the position, but also because he's another body. WVU has started games with five receivers and leaned on that set a whole lot.
The Mountaineers feel kind of unstoppable when they play like that, but Starks and his success have also changed defenses otherwise and that's helped the WVU feel similarly confident in other passing formations.
"It's a big difference," Starks said. "They can't clamp on our two inside slots any more. And not only do you have to cover the inside of the field, you have to cover the two sidelines, as well.
"That spreads the defenses out and makes every defensive make every defensive back work that much harder. If they make one mistake, something can happen."