Georgia’s Malaki Starks stays calm through sometimes stormy season

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

On the surface, Malaki Stark’s freshman season at Georiga has been nothing but a party. A coveted bluechip recruit coming out of Jefferson High, Starks has more than lived up to his 5-star billing. He recorded a highlight-reel interception in his very first game and will start his 13th consecutive game in the College Football Playoff semifinals Saturday in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Behind the scenes, though, there have been personal challenges and struggles. His father was hospitalized for weeks early in the season due to complications with diabetes. Early in October, when the Bulldogs were getting ready to play Auburn, Starks close friend and teammate at Jefferson High, Elijah DeWitt, was shot and killed in Gwinnett County.

Somehow, Starks has managed to stay focused, on point and do everything the Bulldogs have asked him to do.

“It’s been kind of crazy,” Starks said. “I think I’ve been taking it all the right way, though. I’ve been praying to God about everything and my family has been there supporting me. So have my teammates and coaches. So, everything has worked out fine.”

It definitely has from a football standpoint. Heading into Saturday’s game against Ohio State, Starks is third on the team with 63 tackles, leads the Bulldogs in pass break-ups with seven and has logged two interceptions.

Stark’s ability to contribute became especially important midway through the season when fellow safety Dan Jackson went out for the season with a foot injury. Until that development, the wily Jackson was able to alternate with Starks at strong safety and provide real-time pointers on playing the position in practice and games. Jackson, a junior, remains in a walking boot following late-October surgery.

Georgia will need Starks to be on top of his game on this Saturday as the Bulldogs face arguably the most explosive passing team they’ve played all season. The Buckeyes are led by quarterback C.J. Stroud, a Heisman Trophy finalist with 81 career touchdown passes, and a pair of 1,000-plus-yard receivers in Marvin Harrison and Emeka Egbuka.

Starks showed he was up for the challenge when the Bulldogs faced a similar offense against then-No. 1 Tennessee on Nov. 5. Starks led the team with 10 tackles and had a pass break-up in a 27-13 Georgia victory.

“Coming in from high school, college is a big experience,” Stark said. “I’m playing a big role on a big team. So, I just think being able to come in and learn and just really soak up everything has been the biggest thing.”

The way the season got under way helped. Starks didn’t start the opener against No. 11 Oregon in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game, but he found himself on the field in the first quarter. Not long after he came in the game, quarterback Bo Nix tried to go after him with a deep ball down the sideline.

Looking at first like an overthrow, Starks dove for the ball and turned in midair just in time to locate the football and pull it in from a full stretch before landing on his back on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf.

Needless to say, the pick was exactly the confidence-boost Starks needed to do what he’s done the rest of the year.

“Oh, yeah; well, kind of,” Starks said. “I’d made plays like that before. But I wanted to show that I belonged and could do what they needed me to do, and that’s just been awesome.”

Four months later, Larry Starks has recovered, and he and Malaki’s mother, Tisha, will be in attendance again as Georgia tries to improve to 3-0 at The Benz and make a repeat appearance in the national championship.

Starks is taking nothing for granted.

“He’s doing great; he’ll be at the game,” Starks said. “It’s just been amazing, you know? It’s been a dream come true, honestly.”