If there were a motto for special teams, it might be: "buckle your safety belt." Or, in Scott Starks' case, make sure your chin strap is firmly in place.
For the last two seasons, wide receiver Brandon Williams handled kick returns, but Wisconsin's coaching staff wanted to put less strain on his body this year.
So Starks, a four-year starter at cornerback, won the job. Rather than shy away from the extra workload Starks asked special teams coach Brian Murphy if he could join the fray.
"I worry more about Scott walking across the street and tripping and hurting himself more than I do out there on the football field," defensive backs coach Ron Lee said. "He has to do what he has to do to help the team to win."
Starks was no stranger to returning kicks: he had 726 kick return yards on 19 attempts his senior year of high school. The level of collision, even in practice, however, was a different story.
"In one practice I didn't have my helmet snapped up all the way and somebody got through kind of clean and almost knocked my helmet off," Starks said.
He was better prepared the next time around and has been ready and willing to help the Badgers in a variety of ways this season. In addition to corner and kick returner, Starks is a gunner on the punt coverage team. He and the rest of the starting defense often stay on the field for field goal block and point-after block.
"I have probably more fun with punt than with anything else right now… Punt I take so much pride in because that is where the defense is going to start. If I get a chance to down them in deep or pin them in deep that doesn't do anything but help the defense out," Starks said.
Twice in the third quarter of Saturday's win over UNLV, Starks downed a Ken DeBauche punt inside the five-yard line. The second time Starks stopped it at the one, leading to Mark Zalewski's sack for a safety one play later.
Earlier in the quarter, Starks waved at the ball and missed, but stopped it with his legs and helped down it at the five.
"The thing about that one, actually I thought I was on the goal line, that's why I looked so crazy. I tried to bat it back and I looked, ‘Oh, I'm not even in the end zone,'" he said with a laugh. "It worked out."
Starks has a protocol for covering punts. First, he has to dislodge himself from the blocker that lines up immediately across from him. Then, if it is a regular punt, get "to the ball as quickly as possible," he said. "If it's a pooch kick, take care of the man first and find where the ball is, run to the goal line and get turned around.
"You also have to look at the sprinters and people who are coming out of core of the punt team to see if they are going to try to do some type of return: whether it be right or left or middle. You don't want to get trapped."
So far this season, Starks has returned three kicks for 74 yards.
"I like kick return a lot too. I get a chance to touch the ball, which I haven't done since high school," Starks said. He had 4,633 all-purpose yards (2,521 rushing) and 49 touchdowns in his prep career at St. Louis' Hazelwood East High School.
"It is a totally different level from high school," he said. "High school is a lot easier. I can't just rely on my speed anymore. I have to….stick to the schemes."
Starks' speed, though, is a tremendous asset. He was part of the Badgers' Big Ten Champion 400 meter relay team in June and he said he ran a 4.28 in the 40-yard dash during spring workouts.
That speed and a dogged work ethic in the weight room have enabled Starks to not only compete but often play press man-to-man coverage at a generously listed 5-foot-10 and 173 pounds.
"I take pride in the weight room because I'm not the biggest guy," Starks said. "So I have to make up for it with speed and with technique and with strength. So every chance I get to go in there I want to work as hard as I can."
"Scott believes that when he goes up in press someone it doesn't matter if they are 5-9 or 6-4," Lee said. "His technique will outweigh any other factor that has to do with size or anything like that. He believes when he is out there he is going to get the job done
"He's playing with better leverage. Even when it's time for him to make a tackle, he's able to use the leverage to strike through someone—to put all [his weight] into the ball carrier."
So far so good. Starks helped hold UNLV receiver Earvin Johnson to four catches for 26 yards Saturday. This season he has seven tackles, two for loss, two pass breakups and his first career sack. Starks' 18 breakups last year tied for the most in the Big Ten.
Cornerstone on special teams
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