"It was definitely that something clicked because I hadn't had fun playing football since the Fresno State game my sophomore year," Starks said. "I was just kind of going through the motions.
"It was really last week. I was like, ‘I just want to go out there and have fun now.'"
Saturday was supposed to be an absolute shootout—another coronation for Illinois' vaunted passing game, another knock on the Badgers defense.
With starting cornerback Brett Bell out for the season, a thinner Badger secondary was supposed to struggle to merely contain Illini quarterback Jon Beutjer. Illinois' signal-caller did eclipse the 200 yard mark passing, but he did it with more than 40 attempts. After thrashing Wisconsin last season, Beutjer had a fight on his hands for every yard this year. Starks, and fellow corner Levonne Rowan, consistently won the battles with Illinois' talented receiving corps, and in the process set a tone for the game.
"You saw ‘Sparky' in the game Saturday—he finished everything that he did," defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove said. "He competed well and he played with confidence. He is a good football player."
Just more than two weeks ago, Starks saw his 27-game consecutive start streak end when Rowan was given the nod at left corner against UNLV. Starks rebounded from that tumult in startling fashion Saturday, making play after play on Illinois' receivers and finishing with four pass breakups. Monday he was named a team co-defensive player of the week.
Most importantly, football was fun again.
"I was playing against a lot of my friends from high school so it was almost like a home crowd," said Starks, a St. Louis native. "So I was just going out there and having fun and playing ball."
Starks importance to the team cannot be understated. The only corner who entered the season with significant experience, the Badgers need Starks to make plays—to keep having fun.
Prior to last week, Starks said he, "really was not comfortable playing yet, hadn't really adjusted to the whole system yet and I wasn't really having fun.
"Now I'm just having fun. I believe I've adjusted as much as I'm going to adjust and I'm just going out there and just playing ball now."
One example of an adjustment Starks had to make concerns the way he turned in coverage. Before this season Starks had always "turned zone" when matched up with a receiver, or kept his body angled toward the quarterback. This year he has been fighting to break that habit and learning to "turn man", keeping greater attention directed toward the player he is responsible for covering. Turning one way or the other, some may say, is a subtle difference, but in football, where a tenth-of-a-second, a barely wasted movement, or mere inches can mean the difference between a completion and pass break up, finding fluidity within a different coverage philosophy is a substantial change.
"I saw it game by game I was still doing the same thing I was doing last year and it was getting me in trouble," Starks said. "I had to turn that stuff around."
Most importantly, though, Starks needed to have fun again.
"I wanted to renew the fun part of the game because if you are not having fun it is no use playing," Starks said.