HOOVER, Ala. — It took a change of scenery to allow quarterback Nick Starkel to return to his roots.
Under his new cardinal red Arkansas jersey, Starkel donned the infamous black and white Justin Bieber shirt, which he displayed in a photo on Twitter. The undershirt, which features the singer’s face, went missing from his game day repertoire during his third season with Texas A&M last year.
“If he likes it, I love it,” Arkansas senior defensive lineman McTelvin Agim said.
With Starkel now comfortable in the fold, Arkansas is one of five SEC schools that could feature a transfer starting quarterback this season: Vanderbilt, Missouri, LSU, Mississippi State and the Razorbacks.
SMU quarterback Ben Hicks transferred to Arkansas months before Starkel, which gives head coach Chad Morris the challenge of picking between two quarterbacks that now call Fayetteville home.
It’s a growing trend that Morris said is here to stay. Arkansas now has dedicated members of its recruiting staff monitoring the transfer portal, sifting through names for potential targets.
“When you recruit a quarterback, it’s different than recruiting someone else,” Morris said Wednesday at SEC Media Days. “These guys want to play, and they want to be the man. They want to impact the game.”
At the top of Starkel’s resume is previous experience in the SEC. After initially taking a redshirt, Starkel completed 138 of 227 passes for 1,962 yards and 15 touchdowns in two seasons with the Aggies. In that time, he was 2-4 as a starter, with a conference win at Ole Miss.
“Nick played in this league,” Morris said. “Nick’s won in this league. And he understands what this league is about. So we got a battle going.
I think one of the things talking to Nick is he saw an opportunity, an opportunity to come in, and to play in a league he’s very familiar with, and his confidence level is extremely high,” Morris said.
The challenge he faces is beating out a veteran starter in Ben Hicks, who has intimate knowledge of Morris’ offense from the pair’s time together at SMU.
“He knows the offense,” Morris said. “He’s been a quarterback of a football team that went 2-10. So he stood in that team room. He stood in front of teammates before. And he’s also dug a team out of being in that position before.”
Hicks threw for 9,081 yards and 71 touchdowns in three seasons at SMU, two with Morris.
Last season, Hicks threw for 2,582 yards and 19 touchdowns in a 5-7 campaign.
Morris said Starkel might not have been an option for the Razorbacks this season had he not suffered an ankle injury against UCLA in September of 2017, his first start. Starkel would be sidelined until an Oct. 28 matchup with Mississippi State. In his absence, Kellen Mond took over the offense and would ultimately be the choice of head coach Jimbo Fisher when he took over the program in 2018.
Starkel was also a high school recruiting target of Morris’ while he was at SMU.
“To watch the way the ball jumps out of his hand and how electric and how hot that ball comes out, and his decision making, how he can progress and see the field, and his accuracy is what impressed me as I watched him,” Morris said.
Although he has yet to hit the field and practice with his new team, Starkel has already made a positive impression on his new teammates, including senior linebacker DeJon Harris, who was surprised at the size of Starkel.
“Nick is a bigger guy who just came in,” Harris said. “Nick is talented and he’s played in this league already and he’s just one of those guys who can come in. He’s quiet and has been working real hard and has been grinding with his head down.”
The ball is now in Morris’ court to name a starter between the two transfers and sophomore John Stephen Jones, grandson of Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones. The second-year Razorback head coach said he has no timetable for the decision, but hopes to make the announcement prior to taking the field in Arkansas’ Aug. 31 opener against Portland State.
The hope is to find the right man to right the 2-10 course the Razorbacks took in Morris’ first season.
“I want our team to rally around that guy, but I also know that, you know, it’s going to have to work itself out,” Morris said. “They’ve had a tremendous summer.”