On Monday, Nick Starkel was officially named starter for the Hogs’ upcoming game against Colorado State. So now’s as good of a time as any to a) celebrate what looks like the obviously correct decision by the coaches, and b) explore where Starkel’s been and where he’s going.
According to 247Sports Composite, Starkel was a three-star recruit coming out of Liberty Christian in Argyle, TX, where he threw for 3,091 yards and 29 touchdowns in his senior year. An Elite 11 finalist, Starkel was committed to Oklahoma State before he ended up choosing Texas A&M over UCLA. At the time of his recruitment, he was known for a big arm and a steady presence in the pocket. As stated in a USA Today report of the 2015 Elite 11 competition, former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer proclaimed that “Starkel throws the vertical ball as well as any quarterback to come through Elite 11.” Considering that Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck, and Deshaun Watson, among others, spent time at the camp, that is saying something.
College (the first go-around)
After redshirting his first year, Starkel looked poised to have a break-out year. Under Kevin Sumlin, Starkel won the QB1 job over true freshman Kellen Mond. The Aggies were looking great early in their first game against UCLA (honestly due to their running attack [Starkel was serviceable]). Then, sadly, Starkel went down with a broken ankle that would sideline him for the next six games. UCLA ended up coming back in epic and unforgettable fashion. Coach Sumlin was on the hottest of seats.
Starkel slowly eased back into his role as the starter and finally regained the position with three games left in the regular season. His biggest game came in the Belk Bowl, when his 499 passing yards and four touchdowns kept the Aggies in the game. The Ags would lose to Wake Forest, 55-52, with new coach Jimbo Fisher watching.
Overall, Starkel was clearly the superior Aggie QB in 2017. Starkel’s 1,793 yards and 14 touchdowns were well ahead of Mond’s 1,375 yards and 8 touchdowns, and with Starkel having twenty-two less passing attempts.
Starkel had to be thinking that the coaching change was absolutely made for him. Jimbo Fisher’s pro-style offense was built for a pocket passer like him. The quarterback battle throughout spring and fall was reportedly closely contested. Predictions for both Starkel and Mond were made. With a few days before their first game, Fisher gave Kellen Mond the nod. Starkel would only get mop-up duty the rest of the year.
With the acquisition of his bachelor’s degree, Starkel decided to take advantage of the graduate transfer rule and find a place that would be able to utilize him better. Arkansas sure looked like it could use a quarterback.
College (post-grad time)
Starkel was a little behind the eight ball in Fayetteville. While he had to wait until summer to get to campus and start working with the receivers, similarly-transferred QB Ben Hicks was able to get to Fayetteville in January. Hicks was also coming in with a ton of familiarity with the offensive system, having quarterbacked for Chad Morris’s SMU teams for three years.
While Starkel was obviously the more talented arm and the higher upside guy, he was also clearly behind in his awareness of the system, not only what he needed to do but what the rest of the offense needed to do. With time running down before the season opener, Morris and the staff went with the known quality, and Starkel had lost another preseason battle for QB1.
The things that we knew about both quarterbacks pretty much carried out as expected in the Portland State game. Hicks doesn’t have the juice to throw it deep, but with the young players around him, he was definitely able to be that “coach on the field,” moving the newcomers around the field to get them into position before the ball was snapped. Starkel came in at the end of the first half. The short field that the defense gave the Hogs was too good to be true, and Starkel threw the ball right to Portland State. It was later stated that a receiver ran the route badly, but man. The optics on that INT were not optimal. On a drive that ended with time expiring in the half, Starkel blazed a throw to Trey Knox that only he was going to make. Nothing was solved after the game, and boy howdy, did Ole Miss bear that out.
Hicks was given the starting position once again, but through a half in Oxford, the offense was as stagnant as it could get. Finding the endzone was like finding gold, and the Hogs had empty pans. A change needed to be made.
Starkel took over in the second half. Before the first play of the half, someone was lined up wrong, and Starkel didn’t catch the issue in time. But the Hogs started moving. The Rebels, who could key on the run game all they wanted with little vertical threat from Hicks in the first half, began to see attacks downfield. Razorback fans had a flicker of hope when Starkel’s pass to Knox appeared to tie the game. But a freshman lining up incorrectly caused the touchdown to be disregarded. That was as indicative of a moment as you’ll find for this season, to this point.
In less time on the field, Starkel has outplayed Hicks and earned the starting job. Their passing yards are virtually identical, with Starkel having attempted far fewer throws, with a completion percentage about twenty-five points higher. Starkel had that interception, but some of Hicks’s passes were only missed by defenders through, I want to say, some kind of divine intervention. They’ve been rough.
Starkel is clearly not the cure-all. The receivers have to mature, the offensive line needs to learn how to cheat, probably, and the defense needs bodies. But at least with Starkel, you can squint and see a future. Off in the distance. Fuzzily. Too hard to tell if it’s a mirage. But let’s keep going, shall we?