By JACKSON WILSON
Enquirer Democrat Reporter
After visiting eight National College Academic Association (NCAA) Division I universities and receiving all kinds of offers, North Mac senior Cooper Starks has committed to a rebuilding program from the powerful Southeastern Conference.
The towering offensive lineman, weighing in at 320 pounds and standing six feet and five inches, verbally committed to Vanderbilt University after an official visit to the Nashville campus in mid-June.
“There’s no words to describe the feeling,” Starks said in an on-phone interview.
Starks additionally received offers from Ball State, Toledo, Central Michigan, Kent State, Miami (OH), Army, Illinois State, Western Illinois, Maine, Navy and South Dakota. However, once Vandy came calling, the decision became crystal clear.
“Right when I got that offer, I knew [Vanderbilt] was the place I wanted to be,” Starks said. “Obviously, every major fan knows that it’s currently not a dominant football school, but when I went there on my visit to their camp and listened to the coaches and players while witnessing the atmosphere and attitude that they had towards building in general, the confidence I had in the coaches and the program to be dominant in the next couple of years really grew.”
Although Starks dedicates himself to academics just as equally, the Vanderbilt staff was completely centered in on his athletic ability and potential.
The Commodores desperately wanted him to be a part of the transitioning culture and that faith was proven when offensive line coach A.J. Blazek sprung out of his office chair and beat his desk like a drum prior to bracing the Girard native in a bear hug after the commitment declaration June 13.
“They told me not to come there if I wanted mainly the education,” Starks said. “They said ‘We want the football player that’s in you.’ So, the education was just an added bonus. I think their strong belief in me as well as the ability to turn the program around was what made this decision the easiest for me.”
Beginning in the fall of 2023, Starks will be stepping into the national spotlight of the SEC, which has housed the previous three Division I national champions – Louisiana State (LSU), Alabama and Georgia. He will also be up against other powerhouses including Tim Tebow’s alma mater Florida, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Auburn and in-state rival Tennessee Volunteers of Knoxville, who are also seeking a bright future after years of disappointment.
“That’s exciting for me. especially coming from the good ‘ol small town of Girard, Illinois,” Starks said. “I’m going to a place where I’m probably going to be on TV every Saturday so it should be a lot of fun, especially seeing what the future holds.”
With North Mac officially joining the South Central Conference, local teams are going to get a taste of Starks’ presence mainly at right tackle, including Carlinville, which is meeting the Panthers for the first time since the county rivals squared off in an IHSA Class 3A state quarterfinal at Virden in 2016 (won by the Cavaliers 27-23). The rematch, which is scheduled for opening week at the same location on new athletic turf, will kick off a season in which Starks is confident that North Mac could contend and reach new heights after the school spent a decade battling Sangamo powerhouses like 2019 IHSA Class 3A state champion Williamsville, arch-rival Auburn, New Berlin, Maroa-Forsyth, Athens and Pleasant Plains.
“We’re all excited just for a change of pace and going to a new conference,” Starks said. “We’re excited to play new competition. I obviously can’t predict what will happen, but we’re feeling pretty good about how our team looks this year.”
“My favorite Sangamo memory would have to be every time we played Williamsville and Auburn,” Starks said as he looked back on what the Panthers could take from the experience. “You knew what you were going to get with a high-speed offense with Williamsville and you were a good football team if you could compete with that. And then Auburn was obvious as well because those games always presented a hostile environment to play in.”
Starks said that he is expecting to fill in at other positions for Patrick Bowman as well, including guard, defensive tackle or center.
“Wherever [Coach Bowman] needs me, I’m can play in those spots,” said Starks.
A humble mindset with consistent focus is the key ingredient for success in the eyes of Starks, who wasn’t even a varsity starter until he became a sophomore.
“The hardest workers in the room never believe they are the hardest workers,” Starks said as he shared some advice on work ethic. “It’s not even about the motivation aspect of it. It’s about the discipline and how much time you put into it, just like everything else in life.”
Starks, a tri-athlete, additionally plans to return to the basketball team in the winter after spending last year off the court, as well as throw in the shot put again come the spring track season.
Starks will sign his offical letter of intent at a later date that has yet to be determined.
Cooper is the son of Scott and Jolinda Starks.