Former Razorback QB says previous UA staff tossed him out ‘like an old T-shirt’
For the most part, Nick Starkel doesn’t do negativity.
That eternal sunshine disposition has held him in good stead, allowing him to make friends during so many moves. Before graduating high school, Starkel had lived in eight cities in seven different states. In the last year and a half, he’s quarterbacked college football teams in three different states.
This last stop, at San Jose State, has gone particularly well.
In throwing for 1,906 yards, 16 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions and leading the Spartans to a 7-0 conference tear before a loss to Ball State in the Arizona Bowl, Starkel had the kind of bounce-back season he had hoped for at his last spot: Arkansas.
After a few years at Texas A&M, where he had lost a quarterback battle to Kellen Mond, Starkel was ready to resurrect his career in Fayetteville under a new staff in 2019. Former Arkansas head coach Chad Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock had known Starkel from their days at SMU, and believed he offered good competition to their other incoming graduate-transfer quarterback, Ben Hicks.
Starkel said he chose to play the 2019 season in Arkansas over SMU, Florida State and Ohio State. (“Because Justin Fields got his eligibility. And so I said, ‘No, thank you.’”). From almost the very beginning, things didn’t go as he hoped.
“I was only there for one semester during the season,” he said in an interview with Malik Zaire. “I go in and I’m just there for pretty much fall camp. I get there right in fall camp and no one’s helping me learn the playbook. No one’s giving me extra time, and I’m working my tail off to try to learn this playbook.”
Despite the rocky start, for a while Starkel was enjoying life in Northwest Arkansas. But things changed in August 2019 when his best friend and former Aggie teammate, Luke Laufenberg, died of lymphoma. The loss gutted him. Keeping his trademark optimism flickering became harder than ever before.
“My relationship with football was not where I felt it needed to be,” Starkel later told The Athletic’s Kelli Wilson. “I liked it when it was good, and I was hating it when it was bad… I just kind of felt that I was resenting it. I was counting the days until the season was over at one point. That’s toxic. As a leader, that’s super toxic to have on a team.”
Starkel’s personal issues might have been a reason that Hicks began the season as the starting quarterback, even though many players felt Starkel had outplayed him in the preseason.
“Many of the players and parents felt blindsided by Morris’s decision to start” Ben Hicks, according to Wilson, citing a source in the program. “They questioned whether the back-and-forth between the two hurt Starkel’s confidence, resulting in out-of-character play that got him benched.” Wilson wrote the source added: “I’ve had several players say he played in those games nothing like he’s been playing in practice. They didn’t know if his confidence got shook or what.
”For a brief shining moment, however, things seemed better.
Hicks struggled and Starkel started the third game of the season. Against Colorado State, Starkel put together an electrifying performance, throwing for 305 yards and three touchdowns in a win that made Arkansas 2-1. Turns out, that was the high point of the Chad Morris era.
After that win, Starkel and Morris led Arkansas players in a “Club Dub” celebration that looked worse and worse with each passing week. The next year, after Arkansas won its first SEC game since 2017, Hogs star linebacker Bumper Pool was asked about Club Dub. He called it, “unacceptable.”
Worst Loss in Arkansas History
The next game, a home tilt against San Jose State, ended up as the defining moment in the Arkansas tenures of both Starkel and Morris.
In 2019, San Jose State wasn’t nearly as good as it was in 2020. It was coming off a 1-11 season and would finish 5-7 overall. But, thanks to Starkel, its players made memories for a lifetime by knocking off an SEC team on the road.
Sure, Starkel finished with 356 yards and three touchdowns. Yet he also threw five interceptions in the 31-24 loss.
“I had the worst game of my life in terms of throwing interceptions, but it was not a horrible, horrible game,” he said in May 2020. “I made some really good plays in that game. I lost the game, but I kept us in the game as well. I’m never going to say, ‘Oh, I did good and I lost,’ because I hate losing. I think it wasn’t acceptable. It was not enough. It was not acceptable at all. But after that game, the coaches lost a lot of their faith in me.”
Afterward, Starkel vowed to get serious. Real serious. Like throw-away-your-Justin-Bieber-shirt-and-never-look-back serious.
‘Tossed Out like an Old t-shirt’
Within a few weeks, Nick Starkel was feeling like the old Bieber shirt he had just tossed out.
He hurt his elbow against his old team, Texas A&M, the following week but was able to start the next game against Kentucky. Halfway through the third quarter, Starkel had completed just seven of 19 passes for 41 yards. Still, Arkansas was up 13-10 when Morris decided to pull him and put in Hicks instead.
Arkansas ended up losing 24-20.
“We were winning — and they bench me,” Starkel recalled. “Hey, coaches don’t owe you anything. It just goes back to that. If you’re not producing at the level that they think you should be producing at, they’re going to find someone to replace you. The harsh reality of college football is that they don’t owe you anything. Even if you’re giving your all, it’s sometimes not enough for them.”
After that, Starkel got into only two more games. Against heavyweights Alabama and LSU, he completed eight of 29 total passes. But Morris and Craddock never started him again.
“It was their way of saying, ‘Hey, we’re done with you,’” Starkel said in the days leading up to Ball State’s beatdown of SJSU in the Arizona Bowl. “It was like throwing out an old toy or an old T-shirt that you used to love. And that hurt. That hurt me. I had put so much blood, sweat and tears into that team, into that coaching staff and into that program.”
Starkel, of course, wasn’t the only Razorback struggling under Morris and Craddock. It was no surprise that he chose to transfer again after the season considering the program’s coaching upheaval.
He did talk to new Hogs coach Sam Pittman about potentially staying. Said Pittman, “He came to talk to me twice, and he just decided that he wanted to move on after our conversations. We wish him the best, and that’s pretty much it.”
“I had to face the music,” Starkel told The Athletic. “I had a rough year. A coach comes in who’s going to go get a transfer; we have a small quarterback room. Just by pure numbers, you’ve got to go get another guy. Not being the guy, and a coach bringing in someone who’s technically their guy and is exactly what they want — they’re not going to go recruit someone they don’t like.
“I saw that was probably the end of the line for me.”
In the end, all the transferring worked out for everybody involved not named Ben Hicks.
Pittman found his own graduate-transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks, who only delivered the most accurate passing season in program history. He almost certainly performed better than a more clear-minded Starkel would have. And Franks, who is too much of a man to ever allow himself to be photographed wearing talismanic Justin Bieber apparel, has also served as a great teacher and role model to young Arkansas quarterbacks KJ Jefferson and Malik Hornsby.
Starkel, meanwhile, rediscovered at the mid-major level the mojo he’d flashed as an Aggie freshman, where he’s now a better fit. He loves it so much he’s going to stay for a sixth year in 2021 and try to lead San Jose State to back-to-back Mountain West Conference championships.
He’s no longer in a place where he’s disappointing Razorback fans and Justin Bieber alike. He’s now in a place where coaches go through the trouble of reviewing playbooks with him. And he again feels like he has a group of folks in his corner who will fight for him.
“There is a lot of negativity in the world, and I could spend all day trying to defend myself to those people who are being negative, but at the end of the day, it’s not their life. It’s my life. It’s my journey and I’m happy,” he told Wilson.
“I’m just thankful that I can still play ball.”
[Editor’s note: This story ran previously at BestofArkansasSports.com.]