During the second goal-line session of training camp, after offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt had successfully re-established the run as the Steelers' staple, he called for a pass at the goal line. It was a surprise intended for tackle eligible Starks, who never even got his hands up.
"They had a lot of faith in me," Starks said upon reflection. "They called the play; he was looking for me; I was kind of open; and I let him down. I heard the footsteps in the background and it frazzled me."
The Steelers haven't gone back to Starks since, not even in practice. But they have been using the massive rookie as the third tight end at the goal line and in short-yardage situations, and Starks is taking this opportunity and blowing open holes with it.
Starks' first chance came against New England, when he subbed for Marvel Smith at left tackle, a play before Ben Roethlisberger went into Victory Formation. Starks drove Richard Seymour back eight yards and into strong safety Rodney Harrison. It opened a hole big enough for Jerome Bettis to gain 29 yards, his longest run of the season.
The short-yardage roles continued against Philadelphia and Cleveland, and Starks thrived. Against Cincinnati, right tackle Oliver Ross lost his shoe and Starks filled in for two plays. Last Sunday, Starks played five snaps against Washington, and seemed to drive his man at least five yards back every time.
"He should," was all Steelers line coach Russ Grimm had to say.
Grimm isn't one to tout a rookie. Ever since his remarks about then-rookie Keydrick Vincent were blown out of proportion, Grimm has limited his remarks.
"He's getting better," Grimm did begrudgingly admit.
There was a play by Starks, however, that brought a smile to Grimm. Against the Redskins, at a key point in the game, Starks again drove two players out of the action with one block. Grimm's approval was obvious, and he believes the 6-foot-7, 337-pounder, drafted in the third round, could be a real find.
"He has that possibility," Grimm said. "His work ethic is good. His practice habits are good. It's just a matter of experience now. That's going to be the biggest thing."
Starks is the third tight end in short-yardage situations, but a more important task is preparing to play either tackle spot. Grimm admitted that if Marvel Smith were to miss any action, Starks would be the left tackle. Starks said he's ready.
"I feel my progress is definitely steady," he said. "It will come down to getting that experience in live action and going against a first-team defensive end, going through a run play and then adjusting to a pass play. Having that drive experience is probably one of the things I'm lacking right now."
With his size, his experience as a pass-blocker at the University of Florida, and his performance as a run-blocker of late, Starks has everything any team could want in an NFL tackle. But few realized it last April.
"You love to prove people wrong," Starks said. "I've always had a chip on my shoulder. When I was in high school, a lot of people said I couldn't go to a D-1 school, and if I did I couldn't play at a D-1 school. And so I've had that chip. Then going into the draft, it was, 'Oh, he's too big' or 'He's too finesse' or 'He's not mean enough. He's not tough enough. He doesn't really love football.' So I've always had that chip on my shoulder.
"But I love to prove people wrong because I know what type of person I am; they don't know what type of person I am. And so it's not something I look at on game day. You know, I'm trying to help my team win. But it just so happens it's a by-product of that because I'm going out there and showing I am aggressive and trying to play and hit hard."
Just in case Starks slips up, he has a battery of coaches in his ear, the least frightening of whom is Grimm.
Starks is dating the daughter of former Steelers defensive end Dwight White, and "Mad Dog" doesn't sugarcoat his critiques.
"Uh, no. There's no sugar anywhere," Starks said. "He gives it to you real. He watches and he can tell me, 'Just watch this' or he tells me, after a guy may have gotten my inside shoulder, what to do, what they're looking at. It's a different perspective. Of course, my father played defensive end. So he calls me after every game and he'll do the same thing."
Starks' father is former Cincinnati defensive end Ross Browner. After games, Starks might have Grimm in his face, White in one ear and Browner in another.
"I'm constantly getting help," Starks said with a laugh. "It's awesome though, because I'm talking to guys who did it and were successful at it for a number of years and made a good living at it."
Browner lives in Jacksonville and is awaiting his son's visit for Sunday night's game against the Jaguars. Starks, of course, is also excited.
"You know, I haven't lost in ALLTEL Stadium," he said. "We play the Florida-Georgia game there every year and I went 4-0 there. So I'm looking forward to going back to ALLTEL another time, and the same result will happen."
Starks reality: Max can play
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