Jefferson coach Gene Cathcart remembers watching Malaki Starks’ first game at quarterback back in middle school.
The future high school signal caller, in one of his first snaps, managed to score a long touchdown on what was a busted play.
“He looked around, didn’t panic and I think went 85 (yards) untouched,” Cathcart said.
Starks smiled, recalling the moment when asked about it.
“It was against Gainesville,” he said. “I dropped the snap. When I took it, I ran a circle and went 80 with it.”
Now a junior and having returned to his old quarterback position, not much has changed. Starks is doing the same to varsity defenses.
Starks, after two years as a wing back, has moved back under center this fall and has rushed for 1,053 yards with 17 touchdowns — with an eye-popping average of 10.4 yards per carry — as a triple option quarterback. Starks has three touchdown runs of 71 yards or longer this season.
He’s also made the most of his passing attempts in the Dragons’ run-heavy offense, throwing for 437 yards and 10 touchdowns (against only one interception).
“As high as the expectation was for him at that position, he’s even exceeded that,” Cathcart said.
Starks passed the 1,000-yard mark on the ground last week with an 88-yard effort in just a little over one half of play against Hapeville Charter.
“Not everybody reaches that, and the fact that I have is really special to me,” Starks said. “I can’t do it without my teammates. It’s all thanks to them.”
Amazingly, he surpassed the milestone despite having just 101 carries on the year. Starks rarely plays many second-half snaps due to the lopsided leads Jefferson routinely takes into halftime. Had Starks been playing into the second half of some of these games, “I don’t even know the limit to the stats,” Cathcart said.
Starks had admittedly grown comfortable at wing back when the time came to take over at quarterback following the graduation of Colby Clark — another Dragon standout at the position.
Starks called Clark to seek his advice and even worked out with the former Jefferson player during the offseason to help with the change.
“It was really different,” Starks said of the switch, “but it taught me how to be a better leader, and I’m grateful for that."
Cathcart said Starks is an unselfish player and one that’s very skilled at distributing the ball in the Dragons’ offensive scheme. He’s also been in sync with an assortment of different slot backs and fullbacks that have lined up in the offensive backfield with him this year.
Though the Dragons throw sparingly, they like to dial up downfield shots with their play-action game, and Starks can let it fly. He’s averaging 29 yards per completion. He connected on a 55-yard pass to Spencer Neese in last week’s game that set up a touchdown.
“I love it,” said Starks, who praised a receiving corps that includes Jordan Perry, Dawson Crawley and Neese. “It’s one of my favorite things to do. When the ball leaves my hand, I’m completely confident that my guys are going to catch it.”
Cathcart said Starks has the arm talent to connect with those receivers on “home run balls” but also the talent to put the ball where only Jefferson’s receivers can catch it. He’s also good at catering his throws to the different skill sets of his receivers.
“And that can’t be underrated,” Cathcart said.
All the while, Starks is a heralded five-star recruit as an athlete (he could play multiple positions in college). He’s narrowed his list of prospective schools to three powerhouses: Alabama, Clemson and Georgia (he’s still deciding on a timeline for announcing his decision).
Cathcart said the joy Starks takes in the success of others is rare for a big-time prospect.
“A lot of big-time DI prospects, five-star guys throughout the nation, I promise you aren’t exactly cheering on the fourth-team guys as the clock runs out,” said Cathcart, who noted that Starks, and other starters, drove themselves to a recent junior varsity road game to support the younger Dragons.
Starks is also not resting on his success. When asked if there’s anything he’d like to improve on as a quarterback, Starks answered, “Everything.”
Heading into this Friday, Starks finds himself 12-0 as a starter for the No. 2-ranked Dragons who take on No. 3-ranked Carver-Columbus in the state quarterfinals at Memorial Stadium.
The further the Dragons advance, the bigger the moments become for a big-time player who touches the ball every snap for the Dragons.
“I’m sure anxious to see how he finishes this ride this year,” Cathcart said.