The University at Buffalo continued to make the transition Tuesday from a featured runner with acknowledged NFL potential to a running back with a familial NFL pedigree.
Brandon Thermilus, son of former Houston Oilers running back Alonzo Highsmith, ascended to No. 1 on the depth chart after the Bulls delivered the stunning news that all-time rushing leader and all-Mid-American Conference performer James Starks, the football pride of Niagara Falls, is out for the season with a torn labrum.
Thermilus, a 5-foot-11, 224-pound junior from Flower Mound, Texas, had moments of distinction during a sometimes spotty sophomore year. He ran 16 times for 102 yards and two touchdowns in the season-opening win over Texas-El Paso, a game in which Starks gained 179 yards in 31 attempts. Thermilus also had 73 yards on 10 carries against Ohio, and finished the season with 100 attempts for 454 yards and seven touchdowns, with a long carry of 39 yards.
However, at times during the season Thermilus was bounced from the primary backup role by Mario Henry. Henry, a 5-9, 204-pound senior, and Ike Nduka, a 5-11, 213-pound junior who spent last year on special teams, now become the Nos. 2-3 backs, specific order still undetermined. But coach Turner Gill made it clear that at least for now Thermilus is the guy.
"Thermilus is the starter," Gill said at Tuesday's news conference. "Thermilus will be the starter going into the UTEP game. We'll play more than one running back. I haven't decided who will be the backup. There's definitely a battle there between Henry and Nduka as far as the backup situation. Again, definitely two of the three are going to play and all three may play. But we're still working through that and getting closer to making that decision."
There'll be little change in the way of preparations for the Sept. 5 opener at UTEP. Thermilus has been taking the majority of reps in practice since Starks was injured on a hit in the Blue-White scrimmage on Aug. 15.
Plus, the depth of their friendship led Starks to confide to Thermilus that he felt the injury could be serious, carrying into the season.
"I'm real close friends with James," Thermilus said. "We're like best friends off the field. I know it was a hard decision for him to make. I just told him just to pray about it ... and he would make the best decision for himself."
While Starks spent the summer working out at UB and further chiseling his build, Thermilus was back home in Texas, adding bulk to an already thick, muscular frame under the supervision of a trainer and his father.
"That's one of the main things about myself, my work ethic," he said. "The way I look at it is I just got to pick it up, just do what I got to do to play football. That's what I came here to do. I know coach Gill's got a lot of confidence in our backfield and I got a lot of confidence in our backfield that we can get the job done."
Starks gave UB a dual threat, his running ability complemented by his sure hands as a receiver. Thermilus rarely was employed in a pass-catching capacity, but Gill said the playbook will require only slight adjustments.
"A little bit," he said. "It's not going to be a total overhaul as far as our offensive plays. ... I don't think you're going to see a whole lot of difference. We're not going to make a whole lot of changes."
Doubtless the loss of the multifaceted Starks, UB's career rushing leader after last year's 1,333-yard championship output, heightens the challenges in the Bulls' quest to repeat as MAC champions. The team's bound to miss his leadership in the huddle, especially with sophomore Zach Maynard taking over at quarterback for the graduated Drew Willy. Coaches had cited returning experience as the comfort zone in Maynard's development.
The defining moment in Starks collegiate career came last November at Bowling Green, on the final play of the fourth overtime, when he burst 25 yards up the middle, shed tacklers, and scored to cap UB's improbable comeback victory from 20 points down. The win clinched the MAC East title and set up UB's resounding upset of Ball State in the conference championship game.
That's the way it will forever remain. Starks attempted without success to rehab the injury. Last week he underwent an MRI. Then it became a matter of what course of action would best serve him and the team.
"It was definitely hard," Starks said. "I've been here the whole summer working hard. My teammates have been here. Just to feel like I was letting them down made the decision a little harder for me. But I had a lot of information and a lot of help in making my decision. Prayed to the Great Lord up above and asked a lot of people around and the best decision for me and the team was just to move on and have the surgery."
The injury might well have cost him millions of dollars. Starks has been identified as one of the nation's premier running backs, and his combination of size (6-2, 211 pounds) and speed (4.5 40) stirred speculation he could be selected in the upper reaches of the NFL Draft. Without a senior season in the bank, uncertainty clouds the picture.
"During my recovery I'm going to work hard," Starks said. "I got a lot to work for. ... It hurts, but it can only make me better. The Lord never puts too much on you than you can bear. So I'm going to walk with my head up. I still got a family with those guys in there. It hurts, but I'm going to do it."
"I believe he's going to have an opportunity at the next level," Gill said. "I've had some pretty good feedback that he will have an opportunity at the next level. He does still have the great legs, and he still can run and do all the things of that nature. So again, it's just a temporary setback."
Starks, who red-shirted his first year at UB under Jim Hofher, finished his career with 3,140 rushing yards and 34 touchdowns. The void is immense.
UB's compliance office doesn't believe the NCAA would grant Starks a sixth-year of eligibility because he red-shirted his first year. The NCAA usually only grants a sixth year to players who suffered season-ending injuries more than once in their careers.
"We're going to get along and still do fine," Starks said. "Our goal is still the same. I'm still going to lead them the best way I could verbally. I'll be at practice and talking to the guys. If they need something from me I'm still going to be there."