Six catches for 145 yards and four touchdowns. That's the total contribution this season from Bradley Starks, WVU's most veteran deep threat. After being held out or limited for the first four games of the year by a hip flexor injury suffered in the preseason, Starks exploded against UNLV, snaring four Geno Smith passes for 100 yards and three touchdowns. He followed that performance by catching two passes for 45 yards and a touchdown in a 20-6 win against a stingy USF defense. And against Syracuse this weekend, Starks looks to continue that outburst.
Starks first came in as a quarterback but found himself behind Pat White and Jarrett Brown and was forced to make the switch to wide receiver, putting him behind the curve from the outset. Additionally, because he has been hampered by injuries throughout his career and never quite lived up to some fans' expectations, Starks is an enigma at this point. Sure, he seems to have potential. But where is the production? As a redshirt freshman in 2008, he caught 17 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown. Last year as a redshirt sophomore, he hauled in 29 passes for 405 yards and two touchdowns. Both years, he missed significant time due to injury. But even when he was on the field, he seemed to disappear at times. So what does the (re?) emergence of Starks as a viable deep threat do for WVU's offense? Let's break it down after the jump.
Despite some fans, and media, labeling Starks a Wes Lyons clone, the WVU coaching staff clearly have not lost faith in his potential. Before the season even started, Coach Stew said this about Starks:
"I do believe that Brad Starks is a home run hitter and a deep ball guy. He is the threat. It is his time."
More recently, Stew chimed in with this:
"Yeah, but he's one of the biggest [skill position players] and fastest on the team, I just wish we could get him healthy all year.''
Offensive Coordinator Jeff Mullen is clearly on the same page as Stew:
"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."
"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,"
Perhaps more importantly, Starks has always had confidence in himself:
"They told me I was too good of an athlete not to be on the field," Starks said. "And I agreed with them."
And it can't hurt when your teammates, especially quarterback Geno Smith, believe in you too:
"[Starks is] pretty much a matchup nightmare for a lot of teams. Add in Jock [Sanders] and Noel and Tavon [Austin] and everyone else and that's a good mix to have.''
So obviously Starks has some ability, and those that see him in practice every day recognize it. And now, he's starting to cash in on that ability. Clearly that bodes well for a WVU offense that hasn't exactly lit up scoreboards so far this year.
The offense revolves mostly around the heady leadership of Geno Smith and his ability to get the ball in the hands of our three main playmakers, Noel Devine, Jock Sanders, and Tavon Austin. The problem with that strategy is that the ball generally gets in their hands very close to the line of scrimmage and any big-play potential results solely from their ability to elude defenders and get into the open field. When the box is stacked and defenders are able to make plays one-on-one on the perimeter, the offense is limited.
To combat that, WVU needs other playmakers to step up. For example, to date, Stedman Bailey has been an emerging receiver but has yet to really explode for huge plays. His strength seems to be his chemistry with high-school teammate Smith, who has a knack of finding Bailey when the play breaks down or the offense needs a solid 10-12 yards on third down. That's an important weapon to have, to be sure, but it doesn't exactly stretch the field. The slower-than-expected progression of freshman sensation Ivan McCartney (who should develop into an outstanding wideout in time) has only complicated the issue.
Enter Starks. His ability to stretch the field vertically and make big-gainers in the passing game can only yield positive results for WVU's offense. I know UNLV isn't a defensive powerhouse, but the long touchdowns to Starks seemed to loosen things up underneath for Devine to make his big runs. And while Jeff Mullen didn't exactly take advantage of any perceived advantage after the fact, Starks' ability to haul in a deep pass off play-action for WVU's first touchdown against USF was of utmost importance in opening up the game.
If Starks can continue to get open and haul in deep passes, it certainly bodes well for WVU's offense. Not only will defenses have to stretch sideline to sideline, they will then have to account for WVU's fastest player, who happens to stand at 6'3, running wide open 20 yards downfield. Something's got to give. Either defenses will take a guy out of the box, giving Devine room to run, or they'll play off the receivers giving Sanders and Austin space to maneuver, of they'll let Starks catch passes over their heads. Not a problem I'd like to face. And the best part? We have the rest of this year and all of next year for Starks to keep getting better.