MORGANTOWN - For most of spring drills and all of fall camp, Dana Holgorsen routinely shrugged off questions about Brad Starks.Yes, Starks seemed like one of the most talented receivers Holgorsen had inherited when he arrived in January to reinvent West Virginia's offense. And if there's anything Holgorsen covets - aside from a stud at quarterback - it is people who can catch the football.Still, when Starks wasn't injured and not practicing, he always seemed in Holgorsen's dog house. When he wasn't residing there, he was on the sidelines or in the training room."He's not even in the equation right now,'' Holgorsen said as late as the middle of August, almost two weeks into camp. "I've seen him practice maybe twice, so I don't even have a comment on him.''
A few days later when asked about Starks again, Holgorsen cracked that he thought the senior was "getting good at riding the bike,'' referring to the stationary bikes injured players ride during practice.Then there's Holgorsen's official depth chart published each week. There are eight receivers listed, including such names as J.D. Woods and Willie Millhouse. Brad Starks is nowhere to be found.And then there is this. When asked about Starks again last week, Holgorsen's immediate reaction was, well, curt."Well, he's padded up,'' Holgorsen said, meaning that Starks is actually in uniform. "He's practicing.''
Here's the thing, though. Halfway into the season, Starks keeps showing up. Not regularly, of course, but enough to infer that he's a part of the plan. He has caught just seven passes, but three have been for touchdowns.In a 43-16 win over Connecticut a week ago, Starks made the game's - and perhaps the season's - most acrobatic catch, outjumping and outmaneuvering a UConn defensive back for a 22-yard touchdown."I think each and every day in practice they're getting more comfortable with me,'' Starks said. "They're putting me in places to make plays. ... I can't complain. I'm out there playing and doing what I can do to help the team out.''As it turns out, perhaps the treatment afforded Starks leading up to now has been somewhat by design. Wide receivers coach Daron Roberts seemed to say as much last week when he talked about needing to set an example for the younger receivers on the team. If they saw how hard Starks had to work in his fifth year in the program, they would elevate their work habits, too.
"I think it's perfect logic,'' Starks said. "You've got to go hard on the guys that I guess you think can help the team out the most. You set an example, I suppose.''These days, Starks still isn't in the regular rotation of receivers, but the 6-foot-3, 193-pound former quarterback and Virginia all-state basketball player is getting more looks. His catches are generally later in the game, but more and more he sees a few plays earlier.Last week he was even inserted as the second return man on kickoffs along with Tavon Austin.
Yet Starks swears he doesn't mind being picked on, if that was the case."Things got tough for me because of how hard I am on myself,'' Starks said. "It was tough, but I got through it."I think I was even harder on myself than they were. I just had to talk to family and friends and stay positive and not get down on myself. ... When times get tough, sometimes you want to pack it in. But not right now.''Starks admits that through the injuries and everything else he didn't produce enough to warrant more consideration from an entirely new offensive coaching staff. They'd never seen him and didn't know what he could do and he wasn't on the field long enough to show them.But he also knows as a senior he's going to be held up as an example."I think they expect more out of me and held me to a higher standard,'' Starks said. "I've got to deliver.''
And now that he is beginning to deliver, at least in spurts, even Holgorsen is noticing."He made a great catch,'' Holgorsen said of Starks' TD reception. "We've seen that out of him before. He's functioning well and he's practicing well. The more he does that, the more we play him in a game. His effort has been really good."Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org