Starks, a Class of 2022 ATH from Jefferson High in Northeast Georgia, is already highly sought by Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and LSU.
Those programs are among the biggest of big boys in college football. They all want to see him in that No. 24 in their locker room one day. There are at least 24 reasons why.
The most heartfelt is the right place to start.
“When I was little, I had a favorite cousin,” Starks said. “He was like a brother. He was older than me actually but he played football at a school close to mine. He started wearing No. 24 because of me. He was nine and I was seven and he got shot at the age of nine. I wear No. 24 because of him because he had started wearing it because of me before he died at an early age.”
“So I now wear the No. 24 because of him.”
His name was Keion Gresham. Starks wants everyone to remember his name. He still has two more seasons of high school to go, but already has a clear purpose to excel in the game of football.
“He would have been 18 years old two months ago,” Starks said.
When things get tough in his life, he already has two anchors in his life to stay grounded.
“My why would be my family,” Starks said. “Not that I had the worst childhood growing up, but I didn’t have the best either. But my sister she had a baby early in school. So it just brought another mouth in the house to feed and not a lot of money. I do [all of this] for my family so one day my Mom and my Dad can stop working and I can take care of all of them.”
His sister, Mariah, is now 20. His nephew, Isaiah, has been making him the proudest uncle for three years now.
“We spend a lot of time together,” Starks said. “So I am kind of like the big uncle to make sure he’s okay and everything and to make sure he knows what’s right from wrong.”
He will write Isaiah’s birthdate on the tape on his arms for games. When he looks down in a huddle or before a big moment, he wants to see it.
Life is not easy. It helps him to always remember that.
“When I get into a tough situation like late in the fourth quarter or something wise,” he said. “Or when things get tough. Of course, my family is the first thing that pops up. But I will also remember when Keion and I were in the yard. We were training together and it was hot outside and we wanted to give up.”
“He would tell me to keep going. He would say life is not easy. I mean he was young but he was wise. He told me sometimes in life we just have to push through things. So I keep that with me all the time. Every time things get tough.”
Keion Gresham sounds like he would have brought more of that wisdom to our world the last nine years. But that family tragedy was just another senseless example of gun violence.
“Him and his brother both died,” Starks said. “It was kind of a drive-by shooting but I wouldn’t call it a drive-by. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Those shots were not indented for his two cousins. They were just caught in the crossfire.
Malaki Starks is no stranger to things not going his way so far in his young life. (Malaki Starks/Courtesy photo)
“I play basketball too and freshmen year we had a basketball league for our team and I was going up for like a lay-up or dunk type deal,” he said. “I can’t remember exactly what happened because I blacked out. But I broke my tibia and they told me I would miss basketball season and my next football season, too.”
He sat out his freshman year. The 2019 season was actually his first season of high school football.
He was supposed to miss basketball season and track that year, too.
But this young man doesn’t mind getting pushed. He can thank his physical therapist Julee Williams for that.
“She pushed me,” Starks said. “She knew my limits. She knew when I didn’t want to be there. She made me work even harder. She got me back early enough to go play basketball as a freshman and then to go run track.”
When one learns Starks likes to box in his spare time as a hobby and for training, then such a comeback sounds much more plausible.
Starks is rated as the nation’s No. 13 ATH and No. 149 overall prospect for 2022 on the 247Sports Composite scale. That’s because he has played a lot of everything for his Jefferson High football program in Northeast Georgia.
It is a Class AAA school. They will ask a lot from Starks.
He’s been a receiver, a running back and a free safety and a kick returner. Jefferson now plans to line him up this fall as a Wing-T quarterback. He looks to be an even loftier prospect on film than the No. 149 recruit in America.
There are pictures of Starks in the Georgia locker room at the outset of his 2019 season highlight reel. It will be hard for readers of this blog to miss that.
He speaks often with Georgia defensive backs coach Charlton Warren.
“I talk to coach Warren a lot and our relationship is far from none,” Starks said. “The first time I met him we clicked. I saw what he was doing up there and I loved it. I saw him at a camp and saw how he coached. There was a guy there from the JUCO league (DJ Daniel) who was there in camp. He was coaching him like he would coach one of his players and was really pushing him. So Coach Warren and I really clicked from the first time I met him.”
“We’ve just been clicking like that ever since.”
Starks defined what he meant by that “far from none” phrasing in regard to Warren.
“It is special,” he said. “It is unique. I’m a people person, but I don’t know if that’s it. I feel that the bond that we have beyond that is just real there.”
He said he has established strong bonds with the staffs at Alabama, Clemson, FSU and LSU.
“They are all just so cool,” he said. “Those guys are all different but it is all kind of the same even though I have different relationships with all of them.”
What position is he being recruited to play?
“Some schools think athlete,” Starks said. “Some other schools think as a defensive back. It is more like half and half, but more on the DB side than athlete.”
His favorite positions are wide receiver and defensive back. If he had to figure out where to play himself, he’d settle at safety.
“I’d put myself at free safety,” Starks said.
That’s the natural choice. The hands and speed and agility and jumping ability are all over that film. His ball skills would make him a natural wideout, too.
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Malaki Starks: A lot of interest in his home state Bulldogs
Starks was actually able to visit Georgia in early March before the global pandemic shut down all NCAA on-campus recruiting visits.
What was that like? He said it was just different than his other visits.
“That is a great question,” he said. “I’ve been to Georgia a bunch of times actually. That is a great question. The last time I went was their “Junior Day” on March 1. I loved it. Especially the whole trying on the jersey part. That was real cool.”
What did that feel like?
“It felt good,” Starks said. “I felt like I could see myself playing in that jersey. That was fun. It is not like everyday you get to do that. I definitely put as much into that trip that day as I could.”
Malaki Starks and his family had a big visit to Georgia back for a “Junior Day” event on March 1. (Malaki Starks/Courtesy photo)
Count Starks among those track guys that Kirby Smart likes to see in potential Bulldog recruits.
He’s already had a few conversations with the head coach.
“We talked a lot about the school and if I did go to Georgia where I would fit in at,” Starks said. “Where I could play at because I am so versatile. He says I could play anywhere I wanted to but he said that he really sees me on the defensive side of the ball.”
Smart and Warren view him as hybrid defensive back. He can even play the “Star” position because of that overall athleticism he shows as a three-sport athlete, including high school track.
He will run the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the 4X100 and the 4X400 relay for the well-known Jefferson High track program. Starks will also compete in the long jump and triple jump.
The rising junior soared almost 44 inches in the triple jump as a freshman.
If there would have been track season this spring, he would have likely cleared 45 feet as a sophomore. His best long jump would be between 22 and 23 feet at this time.
He has been timed at 22.48 in the 200 meters.
“My best 100 is an 11.02,” he said. “This year I would have broken 10.9 this spring but I didn’t get to run track. I was kind of upset about that.”
Starks also holds down a 3.7 grade-point average at a school with a statewide reputation for academic achievement. He said he made all As as a sophomore.
“My grades are important to me,” he said. “Because I’m way more than just an athlete. Most people when they see me in college they will go ‘Oh he’s an athlete’ but I want them to also see a student. A guy who is also trying to get a major. Life is way bigger than football. I think school is very important so I put that at number two. God comes first. School comes second and then family and then everything after that.”
Sports management has a lead on psychology for his intended major. He is already talking to his coaches about enrolling early in college in January of 2022.
Malaki Starks is easily one of the top prospects in the Southeast for the Class of 2022. (Malaki Starks/Courtesy photo)
The other schools in the mix for Malaki Starks
His dream teams growing up were Georgia and Oregon. Oregon is a common answer for prospects all over the country. The Ducks held sway over a majority of current high school players when they were in elementary and early middle school.
Clemson recently offered. His uncle, Jerome Williams, played tight end for the Tigers in the late 1980s.
“Clemson is also like a family school for me,” he said.
Alabama and Georgia are the only two schools he has visited. He’s been to UGA “five or six” times. His Tuscaloosa trip number count currently sits at two visits.
“I don’t want to make my decision too early because I have only taken two visits,” he said. “I want to wait it out until my senior year because my senior year I just want to focus on my sports in high school. So I think the best time would be at the end of my junior year. Something like that.”
Where would he go visit right now if he could?
“Honestly I think the first school I would go visit right now if I could would be Georgia,” he said. “Because it is just up the road. But I would definitely want to go to Clemson, FSU and Notre Dame and all of those other schools, too.”
He said that Alabama, Clemson, FSU, Georgia and LSU are recruiting him the hardest right now.
“I want where I go to feel like home,” he said. “I want to go somewhere I feel like where they compete hard but they love each other at the same time. They love the grind and the process as much as they love the product. Where it is like everybody is on the same page.”
“I also just want to go somewhere when I can just be me. I don’t have to be a J.R. Reed. I don’t have to be the next [Tyrique] Stevenson. I just want to be me.”
What got Malaki Starks into football
Starks began his career because of a reason that is common to a lot of boys. It is one aspect of American life that has not changed much over the last 50 years.
“The reason why I started playing football is I had a lot of anger issues when I was little,” Starks said. “My brother played football, too. I tried it at first and I won’t lie I was scared of getting hit. But my first game my coach gave me the ball and I took off to the sidelines and once I got to the sidelines I knew nobody could catch me. But when I got to the touchdown I just keep running because I didn’t know when to stop.”
That was his “Forrest Gump” moment from the movie that all the children of the 1990s have seen.
“I wasn’t always like really good at football from the start,” Starks said. “I was decent but it wasn’t really given to me. I had to work for it and I take a lot of pride in that.”
For those that clicked his film, he wants to leave viewers with a certain impression.
“I want people to say he is a great leader,” Starks said. “Leadership is not just a big part of football but life itself. That comes with a lot to be seen as a leader. If someone can see me and say I’m a great leader, then that means I am working hard on everything. That means I am turning my feet. Getting my hands right. Getting my eyes on their hips and not flipping too early.”
“But it also means making sure my other teammates are doing everything that they need to be doing. I want somebody to say that’s a great leader when they see me play.”
Starks did say that the Clemson Tigers have made the biggest charge in his recruitment of late during the dead period.
“They were my latest offer,” he said. “They couldn’t offer any 2022s until a certain date. But when they could, they offered me on the first day. They are just close. I love the things they have built up there. I love the leadership in the program. Like I told you, that aspect of leadership is a big deal for me. I love the competitiveness I see up there and then it is just really good people up there, too.”
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