Coming off a pair of 1,100-yard plus rushing seasons and a Mid-American Conference championship, University at Buffalo running back James Starks was primed for a banner senior season in 2009. The Niagara Falls native was looking to only improve upon the 1,333-yard rushing season that earned him First Team All-MAC honors as a junior.
But that opportunity vanished when he sustained a shoulder injury last summer in the preseason. Surgery for a torn labrum was required and Starks' final collegiate campaign went up in smoke.
"I was practicing the whole summer, working hard, not missing a single workout, being named the captain," said Starks. "So to miss the whole season was hard for me."
UB missed the workhorse back as the Bulls finished the 2009 season at 5-7. Starks did what he could to stay involved. Though he had typically been a leader by example, Starks shifted his leadership approach knowing he wasn't going to be playing.
"I went in there and talked to the team and I was more vocal around the locker room just being a team leader," he said. "It helped me to be able to talk a lot."
Now almost seven months removed from his injury, Starks just completed his three day trip to the NFL combine where he was tested and interviewed. The running back clocked 4.5 in the 40, which wasn't quite up to the standard he hoped to achieve, but still ranked seventh among running backs.
He also fared well in the broad jump leaping almost 10 feet (9'11"), the fourth longest distance. Starks tied for eighth best in the vertical leap jumping 36 inches, fifth best in the three cone drill (6.84 seconds) and had the sixth best time in the 20-yard shuttle (4.23). By most accounts he also fared well in the position drills particularly during the receiving phase.
With over 100 receptions in his college career Starks greatest strength might be his versatility.
"I can do a lot of different things," he said. "I can catch the ball. I have speed to break away. I can break tackles. There's a lot of competition, but I can do a lot more things than most running backs do. I hope that makes me valuable."
Starks, viewed by most NFL teams as a mid-round pick, is described by NFL talent evaluators as a north-south runner with the capability of getting around the corner. The tailback has seen enough NFL games however, to know that trying to get yards on the edges is not a good way to make a living in the pros.
"You can't get that many yards going outside in the league," he said. "You probably have to run through tackles. I can get outside. But I like going north-south and getting my positive yards. I get downhill fast."
Though Starks doesn't know too many players in the league from which to seek counsel about the pre-draft process he does have a cousin in another professional league who went through similar circumstances. Minnesota Timberwolves guard Johnny Flynn is Starks' cousin.
"I've talked to him before coming up here," Starks said while at the combine. "He enlightened me on some things and gave me some wisdom. He had to go through the same things I'm going through now."
Flynn and Starks, both Niagara Falls natives, are proud to represent their city with Starks already feeling the support from his hometown despite training in Bradenton, Florida.
"When I went home and walked around a little and going to the store with my mom a lot of people just came up to me and told me best wishes and to keep up the good work and that I'm making Niagara Falls proud," he said. "It made me feel good that I'm doing something for my city."
Starks hasn't really entertained the thought of what it would be like to play for what he considers his hometown team, the Bills, but would be all for it if it happened.
All he's thinking about at this point in time is getting back on the field and playing again.
"Sitting out helped me realize how much I love football," Starks said. "I'm going to do whatever I've got to do to prove myself to an organization and show a team I'm ready."