Sidelined this spring, Georgia safety Malaki Starks gains new perspective

Georgia defensive back Malaki Starks (24) returns an interception during the fourth quarter against Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Saturday, September 30, 2023, in Auburn, Al. Georgia won 27-20. (Jason Getz /



Georgia defensive back Malaki Starks (24) returns an interception during the fourth quarter against Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Saturday, September 30, 2023, in Auburn, Al. Georgia won 27-20. (Jason Getz /

Malaki Starks mostly has watched from the sidelines this spring as he recovers from a shoulder injury. It’s not ideal, but what an opportunity for Georgia’s All-American safety to gain new perspective.

“I guess it’s a blessing in disguise because it’s teaching me how to lead from a different perspective and be there for the younger guys, and also the older guys in the (defensive back group),” Starks said Tuesday. “We have a mix of older and younger guys in the DB (group). It’s teaching me how to connect with certain people.

“When you have to sit there and watch, it teaches you to watch different things. You see everything when you’re sitting there watching, trying to coach everybody up.”

Starks perhaps is the headliner of the 2024 Bulldogs defense. Once a five-star recruit from Jefferson, he’s been a pivotal part of the defense the past two seasons, dating to his debut when he made an excellent leaping interception off Oregon quarterback Bo Nix in 2022.

And now, in what’s possibly his final collegiate season given his NFL projections, Starks is the top standout on what’s expected to be another stout Kirby Smart defense. Starks had 52 tackles, three interceptions and seven pass breakups last season. He routinely showed freaky athletic ability and tremendous tracking ability. Starks has a case as Georgia’s best defensive back during this current run atop the college football world.

ESPN recently ranked Starks the No. 1 returning defensive back in the country. He almost certainly will be a preseason All-American and routinely get mentioned as a first-round prospect in the 2025 NFL draft.

He’s limited to no-contact work this spring, but that’s little concern. Starks played through shoulder discomfort last season, learning he would need surgery before the SEC Championship game. He opted to delay it until after the Orange Bowl, feeling obligated to join his teammates one more time in Georgia’s walloping of a dismantled Florida State team.

“The guys I played with last year, I won’t get to play with again,” Starks said. “Unless we get on the same team at the higher level. That connection we built, that bond that we had, it was special. The job wasn’t finished. A lot of people opted out, which, there’s nothing wrong with that, but there was still a game to be played. Just because it wasn’t the game we wanted to play or whatever the case may be, I wasn’t just going to sit out.”

The Bulldogs are undergoing changes in the secondary with Kamari Lassiter, Javon Bullard and Tykee Smith off to the pros. The team has ample depth – talent and numbers never are an issue in Athens – but roles still need to be sorted out. Starks praised the group’s competitiveness.

Starks is striving to become Georgia’s first two-time All-American safety since John Little (1985-86). His on-field effort toward that goal will resume soon enough. In the meantime, he’s using this time to help improve those around him.

“Probably how much I can actually learn and affect others,” Starks said when asked how he’d define a successful spring. “That’s the biggest thing for me in my role right now is being able to affect other people, whether it’s a young guy, old guy, grad assistant or coach it doesn’t matter, just bringing that energy and knowing that every day I’m going to go out there and be the same guy no matter what. I can’t practice, but I’m not going to sit there and pout about it. I want to see everybody get better, and I want to see the defense grow. Being able to learn and teach is important to me.

In two weeks, the Bulldogs are expected to have several defenders drafted, though they might not have a round-one selection. It would be the first time since 2020 that Georgia didn’t have a defender drafted in the first round. They’ve had eight defenders taken in the first round over the past three drafts.

If Starks stays healthy and continues his trajectory, he’ll have a good chance of going among the first 32 picks next spring. He’d be the second first-round safety under Smart, joining Lewis Cine (2022, No. 32 overall).