Most Sundays, Kansas University football coach Turner Gill chooses to spend his time recruiting and with family, not always in that order.
Today, though, when the NFL’s conference championship games begin at 2 p.m., Gill will attempt to squeeze one more thing into his day. The reason? One of Gill’s former players, running back James Starks, figures to play some kind of role in determining whether Green Bay, the sixth seed in the NFC, will advance to its first Super Bowl since 1997.
Starks, a 6-foot-2, 218-pound rookie from the University of Buffalo, has taken the long road to his current status as a starter on an NFL club making a deep run in the playoffs. He missed his senior season at Buffalo because of a shoulder injury and sat out the first 12 weeks of this season with a leg injury. Through the waiting, Gill kept in contact with Starks and remained convinced that his former running back would make some noise in the NFL.
“I just knew he needed an opportunity,” Gill said. “No. 1, he’s competitive. No. 2, he has God-given ability, he can run. He has great size, he has toughness, and he thrives on being the best.”
Already at Buffalo when Gill arrived, Starks spent his first year of college playing cornerback. When Gill took over, he met with his players and asked them where they’d like to play. He did the same thing at Kansas. Starks’ answer helped shape his future.
“He said, ‘I want to play on the offensive side; I played quarterback in high school,’” Gill recalled. “So we looked at his tape, and I told him, ‘You’re definitely gonna play on offense, and we’re gonna start you at quarterback. When you come into spring ball, we’ll see what happens.’ After about three days, I realized he wasn’t quite the quarterback, but he could definitely run the football. So we switched him to running back, and I guess the rest is history.”
Starks finished his college career with 3,140 yards and 40 touchdowns, including back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons as a sophomore and junior.
In Green Bay’s opening-round victory against Philadelphia two weeks ago, Starks carried the ball 23 times for 123 yards and also caught two passes for nine yards. Starks, a sixth-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, followed that up with 66 yards on 25 carries in last week’s 48-21 pasting of top-seeded Atlanta. The rookie running back had a huge smile plastered on his face throughout most of both games, even after being popped on a couple of occasions. Gill was not surprised.
“That’s him,” he said. “No matter what’s going on. No matter whether you’re talking to him about football, academics, his family, whatever’s going on, he’s gonna have that little smile. That’s his personality. It doesn’t mean that he’s not tough, though. I can tell you that. He can turn it on and turn it off, and that’s just the personality of James Starks.”
Green Bay will play at 2 p.m. today at No. 2 seed Chicago. In the AFC championship game, No. 2 Pittsburgh will play host to No. 6 New York at 5:30 p.m.