“Coach Pittman Probably Did the Best Thing for Me”: Nick Starkel Reflects on Arkansas & Aftermath

Nick Starkel, Arkansas football
photo credit: Nick Wenger

Now living in Orange County, perhaps it’s appropriate that Nick Starkel likens his life to a movie.

As if it was ripped from a script straight out of Hollywood, the former Justin Bieber shirt-wearing quarterback resurrected his career with the same team that nearly killed it.

These days, Starkel is no longer playing and he’s developed a nice work-life balance while still grinding in the sport he loves, but getting to this point wasn’t easy.

Before reaching the climax of winning a conference title at San Jose State and embarking on a coaching career, he first had to go through what he described as the “inciting incident” of his college football journey during a miserable 2-10 season with the Razorbacks.

“I was living by myself at Arkansas and it was a lot of lonely stuff,” Starkel recently told Best of Arkansas Sports in an exclusive interview.

It took some time, but the version of Starkel that emerged from his year of struggles in Fayetteville seems to be far different than the one who got into Twitter beefs with other recruits and finally caught the attention of Bieber only after publicly revealing he ripped his shirt in half and threw it away.

Given the benefit of nearly four years and a whole new perspective on the game, he has a much more mature outlook on his time at Arkansas and his current values in life.

Starkel’s Time with Arkansas Football

Coming off a 2-10 season marred by poor quarterback play, Arkansas brought in a pair of transfers to battle it out and – hopefully – right the ship in Chad Morris’ second season at the helm.

Nick Starkel seemed to assert himself as the No. 1 guy over Ben Hicks when he threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns to help the Razorbacks avenge their loss to Colorado State the previous year, but it didn’t quite unfold that way.

All Arkansas football fans remember what happened next. Just one week later, Starkel was intercepted five times in an embarrassing 31-24 loss to San Jose State. It was the lowest of low points for the former ESPN four-star quarterback.

After the game, which ended a little after 10 p.m., Starkel went to the indoor facility and lifted weights for an hour and a half by himself before throwing into nets he set up in all of the spots he missed throws against the Spartans.

“I was just trying to get my mind off of what had just happened,” Starkel said. “I knew, okay, that was probably my last chance really making a name for myself and I felt like I had blown it. I didn’t know what football held for me after that moment.”

Just four games into the season, he was doubting himself and asking his family and football mentors if the sport was still for him.

Starkel remained in the starting lineup the following week against his former team, Texas A&M, but he didn’t finish the game. Despite completing 12 of his first 16 passes and leading Arkansas on a long drive down to the goal line, his day was cut short when his shovel pass was intercepted by Justin Madubuike.

With no one else there to make a play, Starkel had to go for the tackle and the 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive lineman landed on him. His left arm bent the wrong way and led to numbness, so Hicks replaced him and the Razorbacks eventually lost 31-27.

It turned out that he had some nerve damage and he was still at only 75% when, after an open date, Arkansas returned to action against Kentucky. That didn’t keep him from starting, but after going 7 of 19 for just 41 yards, Starkel was benched in the third quarter of yet another close loss.

After not playing in a blowout loss to Auburn, he got one last chance at No. 1 Alabama. It did not go well. Starkel was just 5 of 19 passing for 58 yards with three interceptions. That ended up being the first of five straight games in which Arkansas started five different quarterbacks.

“I didn’t go from the starter to back up,” Starkel said. “No, I went from starter to fifth string and there was no light at the end of that tunnel. That’s when things really got tough for me.”

Even though he felt mentally broken at that point, Starkel eventually picked himself up and decided to do whatever he could to help the team — even if that meant rotating with Hicks as the scout team quarterback or even hopping in at wide receiver.

It also didn’t help that he was living by himself, but luckily he befriended a freshman named Jalen Catalon, who stayed in his extra room the night before traveling. The pair would watch film together and Starkel would give the young safety a quarterback’s perspective on things, all while also mentoring him as a fourth-year junior.

That helped him get through the rest of the season, which ended with another 2-10 record and resulted in the firing of Morris with two games remaining.

Starkel still had another year of eligibility, but he said new head coach Sam Pittman told him point blank that he’d bring in a transfer. He was appreciative of his honesty and that Pittman said he’d support him going wherever he wanted.

“Coach Pittman probably did the best thing for me,” Starkel said. “The best thing a coach could do for you is be brutally honest and that’s exactly what he did, so I’ll forever have a lot of respect for Coach Pittman. Especially seeing what he’s done at Arkansas. I know for a fact that he’s a great coach to be able to get those guys to come together and fight for each other and be able to lead those guys.”

The Resurrection and Retirement of Nick Starkel

Not long after entering the transfer portal, Nick Starkel found his new home and it was one that no one could have predicted. He announced that he’d finish his career at San Jose State — yes, the same school that intercepted him five times the year before.

As wild a story as the move was, it was a “breath of fresh air” and came with “no expectations,” Starkel said. When the pandemic hit a few months later, California banned mass gatherings, which meant he’d be playing the 2020 season in front of no fans – a far cry from what he was used to in the SEC.

“There weren’t distractions,” Starkel said. “It was just us, just the guys and the people in the locker room. And I fell in love with the game again.”

While dropping from the SEC to the Mountain West certainly helped, Starkel also benefited from a new coaching staff that went about things differently.

“I think for me, it was a different learning style at San Jose and it was something that really clicked for me,” Starkel said. “It was a set of rules. Every single play, this is where your eyes start.… You could call any play and I would be able to write up a paragraph of this is exactly what’s going on in my head for this specific play.”

The Spartans had a “QB dictionary” with 100 terms that allowed all of the quarterbacks and quarterbacks coach Ryan Gunderson to speak the same language.

It all came together and resulted in a magical season. With Starkel leading the offense, San Jose State went 6-0 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 regular season and beat Boise State in the Mountain West title game. Even with a loss to Ball State in the Arizona Bowl, the Spartans finished the year ranked No. 24 in the AP Poll.

In eight games, Starkel completed 64.2% of his passes for 2,174 yards, 17 touchdowns and only seven interceptions, which earned him second-team All-MWC honors.

That should have been his final year of college football, but the NCAA’s blanket eligibility relief in response to the pandemic gave him an extra season. Starkel’s super senior campaign was marred by injury and his numbers dipped — 51.6% completion percentage for 1,645 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions in seven games.

Despite that, he still got a cup of coffee with the New York Jets and an invitation to rookie mini camp with the Dallas Cowboys. Neither opportunity led to anything, though, and he ultimately set a deadline for the end of preseason for another NFL team to call or he would hang it up.

He had no interest in playing in the USFL or XFL, even when coaches came calling and said he’d be their starting quarterback. Instead, he respectfully declined and recommended other quarterbacks he knew.

“I stuck by my guns with that,” Starkel said. “I prioritized family and being with the people that I feel like I kind of missed out on, or didn’t prioritize when I was playing football. And I’ve seen my relationships with my family, with my sister, with my parents grow.

“I get to hang out with them. (When) my sister got married, I got to officiate her wedding and be there. If I was playing in the USFL or XFL, I would’ve had a game that day.”

Life After Football

Nick Starkel hasn’t completely waved goodbye to the sport he played his whole life, though. He still gets his football fix as a coach at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, Calif.

On top of his duties as the passing game coordinator and quarterback coach for the varsity squad, Starkel is also the head coach of the Sea Kings’ junior varsity team. While he doesn’t throw in-game passes any more, the gig lets him get the rush of calling plays.

That is actually just one of three jobs for Starkel right now, as he also does private quarterback lessons and takes overnight shifts doing inventory for Lululemon, working as late as 2 a.m. only to be up again by 6:30 the next morning.

“It’s just grinding right now, but I’m absolutely in love with it,” Starkel said.

The private lessons are done as part of a company called QB Influence. He works for Drew Aumavae and trains quarterbacks in Southern California, Las Vegas, Utah and Hawaii but primarily works with the SoCal group.

Starkel also gets to travel for the job. He flew to Hawaii twice over the summer to work with quarterbacks on the island and knows he’s going back in December. He could potentially go out there one weekend every month during the offseason, too.

It’s comprehensive training, as they don’t just work on throwing passes, but also focus on the mental side of things. They do a lot of board work, teaching the young quarterbacks about defenses and setting protections.

“Our approach is let’s prepare these guys to be the best in terms of football IQ,” Starkel said. “They can go get throws with any quarterback coach around the country, just to get throws. … Anyone can do that, but we want to develop the person to build those habits to be a great team leader, and a great teammate, and a great human being first.”

One benefit Starkel brings to the table is that he’s been in their shoes and enjoys mentoring them through the recruiting process. Things have changed a little bit with NIL, but he feels like he went through it recently enough that he can still provide some guidance.

He had opportunities to become a graduate assistant or get into coaching at the lower levels of college football, but after talking with some friends in those roles, Starkel said he felt like it’d be too time-consuming. Instead, he foresees sticking in the high school ranks because he wants to make an impact on young players’ lives.

“I want to be a do-er rather than a be-er,” Starkel said. “I don’t want to be somebody, I’d rather do something for somebody. And that’s just where I’m at.”

Along those same lines, he wants to continue working as a private quarterback coach/trainer, but would also love to eventually become a “QB guru” similar to the one KJ Jefferson spent time with this summer. His goal is to work with collegiate quarterbacks not only during the offseason, but also as they prepare for the NFL Draft.

Lessons Learned with Arkansas Football

Even though coaching JV ball in high school is not the same as coaching in the SEC, the experience has given Nick Starkel a new perspective that has changed how he looks back on his time in Fayetteville.

Arkansas football fans may be surprised to learn that he said he had a “really, really close personal connection” with head coach Chad Morris and could call him up on a Sunday night to just talk about life — a familiarity he said he didn’t have with Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M.

Starkel also took full ownership of his mistakes as a quarterback.

“You can prepare your guys as much as you can and you can focus on calling the right play or making sure you’re in the right call, but at the end of the day, it is the players,” Starkel said. “And I think that every player who is real with themselves and takes a look in the mirror is going to say, ‘No, it’s not on a coach that we didn’t have success.’”

“While a coach is responsible for the leadership, and for the morale, and the culture of a team, he’s not responsible for the decisions that they make on the field. And I was not making the right decisions.”

There were a lot of times when Starkel would “freestyle” and ignore the play called by the coaches. Sometimes it’d work out, but other times it’d be disastrous.

He also downplayed the fact that he and several other quarterbacks coached by Morris – Ty Storey (Western Kentucky) and Cole Kelley (Southeastern Louisiana) at Arkansas and Bo Nix (Oregon) at Auburn – have enjoyed much more success after getting out from under his leadership. Starkel’s theory is that they, just like he did, found a different way to learn and see the game that just happened to work better for them.

“He gets a lot of criticism, but I think Coach Morris is a great, great person,” Starkel said. “And I do think he’s a good coach. I absolutely do think he’s a good coach.”

That criticism has followed Morris from Auburn to Allen High School to South Florida, where he worked as an analyst, and now Clemson, where he returned as a special assistant to the head coach.

Starkel likely would have piled on instead of defending his former coach if asked about him in January of 2020. He even admitted that he probably would have given an “arrogant” response about how it was the offensive philosophy.

Now with experience as a coach, he sees that it was on him and that he had “blind spots.” That realization helped him come to peace with what unfolded in 2019.

“Being able to mature in life a little bit, being able to reflect on what actually was going on there, a lot of it was on me,” Starkel said. “And I think at Arkansas, I might’ve been a little prideful and if you would’ve asked me, I probably would’ve said some hurtful things or something that really, at the time, might’ve been how I was feeling. But it wasn’t the truth of the actual situation and the circumstances.”

If Starkel’s career had been dreamt up in Hollywood, he’d be preparing for his second season in the NFL right about now.

Instead, he’s gone off script and is now rewriting his story in the city of dreams, where he’s fully embraced the Southern California lifestyle and recently even picked up surfing.

It’s probably not quite what he expected for himself when he transferred to Arkansas a few years ago, but the possibilities for what lies ahead are as expansive as the Pacific Ocean stretching out in front of him.

“Even if I’m out there alone, just doing some reflection, doing some soul-searching, I think that it’s something that everybody should experience,” Starkel said. “It’s almost like a meditative state.”



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Nick Starkel Career Stats

YearTeamCOMP-ATT (%)YardsTDINT
2017Texas A&M123-205 (60.0%)1,793146
2018Texas A&M15-22 (68.2%)16910
2019Arkansas96-179 (53.6%)1,152710
2020San Jose State163-254 (64.2%)2,174177
2021San Jose State128-248 (51.6%)1,64597
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