MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It appears West Virginia’s offense has yet another bullet to put in its chamber with the reemergence of junior Brad Starks on Saturday afternoon against UNLV, serving notice that West Virginia’s horizontal passing game can also go vertical as well.
Starks got behind UNLV’s secondary for a 38-yard touchdown on the game’s third play, and later caught a pretty 48-yard bomb from quarterback Geno Smith right before the end of the first half when he went overtop the nation’s No. 1 ball hawk, Will Chandler, who came into the game leading the country with six takeaways.
“He put it in a spot so it was really up to me to go up and get it,” Starks said of his second TD catch.
Starks added a third touchdown midway through the third quarter to become just the third player in school history to record three TD catches in a game. Starks finished the afternoon with four catches for a career-high 100 yards.
“I thought Brad Starks stepped up,” said West Virginia coach Bill Stewart.
Rebels coach Bobby Hauck said the Mountaineers’ speed on the flanks was one of the deciding factors in the game.
“Their speed advantage at the skill position was really evident,” Hauck said. “They did a good job of getting the ball to those guys and we were not able to make plays on them. They made us look like a not-very-fast, banged-up football team, which is kind of what we are.”
Banged up is also a very good description of Starks’ three seasons at WVU so far. He has displayed glimpses in the past, his performances against North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl and against Auburn and Colorado immediately coming to mind, but the main problem with Starks has always been his inability to remain on the football field.
Starks’ list of ailments is as long as the two TD catches he made against UNLV on Saturday.
“You saw is in the spring and you saw us in camp, he was in a red jersey for a while and he was in green – Christmas colors and colors I detest,” said Stewart. “He has been in red and green for God knows how long and when he finally got out of them he looked pretty fluid to me and I was really tickled for him.”
Twice Starks has been bothered by shoulder problems, he also missed time last spring with an ankle ailment - not to mention the fact that he has been chronically bothered by a tender groin ever since making the switch from quarterback to wide receiver during his freshman year. Injuries made Starks MIA during fall camp, much to the chagrin of offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen.
“I’m a big fan of Brad’s,” said Mullen. “Brad had a really bad fall camp, battled some injuries, but I really like how Coach (Lonnie) Galloway handled him. He forced him to work and I think it paid off this evening.”
“I felt like, ‘Why me? Why do I have to get hurt again?’ I did everything in my power to get back as fast as I could,” said Starks. “If that was four or five treatments, then that’s what I had to do. I didn’t like being hurt at all.”
Now that he appears to once again be healthy, what Starks brings to the table is a wide receiver with tremendous size and athletic ability on the outside that can put additional pressure on safeties down the field. In West Virginia’s first four games against Coastal Carolina, Marshall, Maryland and LSU, the Mountaineers had just four pass plays covering 30 yards or more. All four of those particular plays were at the line of scrimmage and were made on runs after the catch by West Virginia’s slot receivers.
On Saturday, Starks nearly doubled that total himself to add another big-play dimension to Mullen’s offense.
“We made comments in our staff room that arguably our best receiver has yet to catch a pass and we were still doing pretty well in the throw game after four games,” said Mullen. “And certainly after five I am assuming we’re still doing OK in that department and now we’ve got one of our better players the ball. I was excited to see that and I am looking forward to the future with him the rest of the year.”
Starks said he tried hard to remain patient throughout the team’s first four games when no passes were coming his way.
“The offense was doing exceptionally well without me being a contributor to the passing game and that’s fine by me,” he admitted. “But when I go in there I am going to work and I’m going to have to do whatever I need to do for our team to be successful.”
And that means making plays down the field, which West Virginia took advantage of on Saturday.
“I wanted to make sure they defended the width of the field as well as the depth of the field,” said Stewart. “How did we do that? We went five-wide and we threw the ball quick.”
“We thought our matchups might be out on the edge,” added Mullen. “It was fun to see the big play happen.”
Starks’ success on Saturday will undoubtedly get the attention of South Florida, West Virginia’s next opponent in a quick turnaround this Thursday night. Stewart is simply hopeful that he can keep Starks from slipping on a banana peel before the team’s next game.
“We’re blessed to have him at this university - I just wish we could get him healthy through a year,” said Stewart.
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