ATHENS — Malaki Starks knew he needed shoulder surgery.

He also knew he’d never again have a chance to play with Kamari Lassiter, Tykee Smith and Javon Bullard, as the three defensive backs were moving on to the NFL following Georgia’s Orange Bowl game against Florida State.

So Starks had a decision to make. He could have his shoulder operated on following Georgia’s loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game, and begin the recovery process.

Or he could enjoy one last ride with his teammates. For the All-American safety, the choice was obvious.

“That connection that we built, that bond that we had on that team was special. And two, the job wasn’t finished,” Starks said. “A lot of people opted out and there’s nothing wrong with that. There was still a game to play and just because it wasn’t the game we wanted to play or whatever the case may be, I wasn’t going to just sit out and treat it like it was nothing.”

Starks came down with an interception in the win, as the Bulldogs dominated a depleted Florida State team 63-3.

This spring, Starks is living with the consequences of those choices. He first injured the shoulder in fall camp last season and knew prior to the game against Alabama that he would need surgery to get the shoulder fixed.

Starks has appeared in all 29 games during his collegiate career, starting 28 of them. When it matters, as the Florida State game did to him, Starks shows up for the Bulldogs.

“I haven’t been out this long since I started playing football,” Starks said. “For me to sit out and not do stuff, I started doing indy not too long ago to get back into it a little bit. I guess it’s a blessing in disguise. It’s teaching me how to lead from a different perspective and be there for the younger guys, and also the older guys.

“We’ve got a mix of young guys and old guys in the DB room so it’s kind of teaching me how to get to everybody and connect with certain people.”

With Bullard, Lassiter and Smith gone, Starks now takes on a much larger role in Georgia’s secondary. He was already the best defender in the group, earning All-American honors as a sophomore.

This spring, he’s taken up a larger leadership role out of necessity. While he can’t partake in any contact drills during practice — and thus won’t play in Saturday’s G-Day scrimmage — there is still value for Starks in being very involved in the Georgia program.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of interacting with Starks will tell you as much.

“He’s a great guy and it has just been awesome,” quarterback Gunner Stockton said of Starks. “We came in the same class and everything, coming into together. Seeing how he treats people in the building, it’s just awesome. He’s a great guy.”

Starks had a banner sophomore season for the Bulldogs, notching 3 interceptions while breaking up 7 passes and recording 52 tackles. He’s not just one of Georgia’s best players but one of the best in the country.

From an on-field perspective, he wasn’t going to get demonstrably better this spring. That speaks to how great he already is as a player.

But there are still areas for him to improve. He feels he’s gotten the chance to do that and will continue to do so during Saturday’s G-Day scrimmage.

Even if he won’t be out there breaking up passes and flying in for interceptions.

“I think that’s the biggest thing for me in my role right now is being able to affect other people, whether if it’s young guy, old guy, GA, coach, it doesn’t matter,” Starks said. “Just bringing that energy, knowing that every day I came out there and I was the same guy no matter what. Yeah, I can’t practice, but I’m not going to just sit around and just pout about it.

“I want everybody to get better. I want to see the defense grow, so just being able to just learn and teach, really.”

Starks made a choice to play in Georgia’s Orange Bowl win over Florida State. He has zero problem with anyone opting out of a bowl game, as he understands the risk.

The Georgia safety also knows that decision made him better. Not just as a player, but as a person and leader for the Bulldogs.

Malaki Starks shares why it was important for him to play in the Orange Bowl