Coach, Mentor

Due to his relationship both on and off the field with Bradley Starks, Orange County High School offensive coordinator Jessie Lohr has a unique perspective on the star quarterback as both an athlete and a person.

Obviously, any offensive coordinator is going to get to know his quarterback pretty well. From game planning to on-field practice sessions, the QB and OC work closely together to execute the offensive strategy each week. The two probably spend more time together than any other coach-player pairing, and as a result can get to know each other pretty well.

That's only half the story for Lohr and Starks, however, who might spend more time together off the field than on.

"That situation started in his ninth grade year," said Lohr. "Bradley lives around the corner from me, so it started with me picking him up and taking him to practice. We'd talk about a lot of things during those trips. Then, due to his mother working two jobs to support the family, there were a lot of times that she came home late. Bradley started having dinner at our house, and she was o.k. with that as well. Over the summer he stayed a lot at our house, and it just kind of worked out that he stays as much with us as he does at home."

Starks' father, who lives in another county, does make as many trips back as possible to see his son, but Lohr became the day-to-day figure that provided support and help to the burgeoning star. With no other male figures in Starks' home, Lohr gradually became a trusted mentor.

The young coach never thought he would be in this position when he first saw Starks on the field, however. Lohr, who first coached Starks in middle school, knew he was seeing talent that doesn't come along very often.

"The first time I coached him in middle school I thought he was good enough to play j.v., and he has just improved from there tremendously," Lohr said. "The first time I saw him, he could dunk a basketball, and that was in the eighth grade. My jaw dropped, and I just said ‘wow'. I knew then he would be special.

"We haven't seen many like him," the young coach continued. "In all areas and all sports he is just the cream of the crop and a tremendous talent. I see him as Brad Smith type of quarterback. If he fills out in his body, which I think he will, he will be a 210-pound QB. I know he isn't on this scale yet, but he is a Vince Young kind of kid. By far he is the best kid that I have ever seen."

While a number of coaches have been known to overhype their players, Lohr doesn't seem to be doing much exaggerating. In fact, he has been careful not to put too much on the shoulders of his prodigy too quickly – a process that seems to have helped Starks play and improve at his own pace. Having Starks around him off the field likely helped in that process, as Lohr was able to see how he handled increased pressure and responsibilities.

"It was tempting to put too much of the load on him at first," admitted Lohr. "We started him five games during his freshman year, and he came into his sophomore year as the starter. That year, it was a situation where we graduated a number of players, and when we found out he was capable of carrying the load, we went with him, but after the season we thought he was trying to do a little too much and take it all on himself. For his junior season, I tried to take some things out [of the offense], and he became even more successful."

That last is something of an understatement, as Starks threw 30 touchdown passes against just three interceptions and backed that up with 880 rushing yards and 11 scores in just 10 games. With numbers like that, Lohr will certainly repeat the plan he used last year, and do as much as possible to keep the pressure off his star player.

Having Starks' collegiate decision out of the way will also help in that regard. Recruiting interest in the true dual-threat quarterback was mushrooming quickly following combine appearances this spring, and the resulting barrage of contacts would certainly have put a major dent in Starks' time and preparation for his senior season.

"I think having the decision out of the way will help a lot," Lohr said. "My biggest worry was that he would be concerned with how he played in front of coaches, or that he had to do more to impress somebody. I have never seen him do that, because he is a team player first, but having his choice made removes any chance of that. This is the best time of his life, and now he doesn't have to worry about [the recruiting process]."

Lohr is quick to cite evidence of such team-first behavior, and has seen his pupil grow into a responsible leader as well.

"He will hold on to the ball for a five-yard gain rather than try to make a 50-yard throw," he explained. "Since I've known him, he has grown up tremendously. When he says something, he will follow through with it. This is a solid commitment."

Also helping in that regard were a couple of other factors.

"He just fell in love with Morgantown," said Lohr, who won't be a stranger to the University City when Starks comes to WVU in the fall of 2007. "He just likes West Virginia a lot, and he has a couple of cousins who are already students at WVU. They don't play any sports, but they knew a lot about the school, so he already had some background knowledge of what things were like there."

Before Starks leaves, however, he has one final year at Orange County, and it will be a special time not only for the school but also for the entire community.

"He will be the first player from here to go straight to Division I out of our school," Lohr said. "We've had a couple go to prep school first and then to Division I, but this is the first time we had a kid at this level -- a cream of the crop type of kid -- that could play at any number of schools.

"So it's not just me, but the whole community as well that will enjoy his senior season. They know this will be the last time they can seen him in person. That final game of the year, when I give him that big hug, maybe then it will hit me that he is gone, but there won't be a Saturday in Morgantown that I will miss. He's like my third child. He is just a part of my family now."


Lohr was highly complimentary of assistant coach Bill Stewart, who handled Starks' recruitment.

"Coach Stew is a great person. He speaks from his heart. You listen to him and just warm up to him. I can say so much about the guy. He gives you every opportunity to get things off your chest, and answers all your questions. For example, he told us all about Charlie Russell (another quarterback the Mountaineers have a commitment from) and was very straightforward about that situation. He told us to check things out, and make sure we knew everything we needed to know. He called me a lot to knowing my role with Bradley, and that gave me great confidence in how West Virginia was recruiting him."

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