VERMILLION, S.D. | By his own admission, Tyler Starr had a lot of growing up to do when he enrolled at the University of South Dakota.
Then, he was a 214-pound safety with little direction, a guy the Coyotes took a chance on when others didn’t. A small-town kid from Little Rock, Iowa, who wasn’t exactly concerned about his future.
A far cry from the finely tuned 6-foot-5, 250-pound athlete he has become.
“I was one of those kids who kind of got labeled, he isn’t going to go anywhere. I think I got deemed a bad kid and I got sucked into that personality that everybody thought I was” Starr said. “I didn’t really go to class, didn’t think about the future and what I wanted to do, I just thought I could get carried all the way through life just on my accomplishments. I really didn’t have a plan.”
Things got off to a rocky start at USD for Starr, a two-sport prep standout who played on a state championship football team at Central Lyon/George-Little Rock and a state basketball titlist at George-Little Rock.
Ed Meierkort, then the head coach at South Dakota, sent assistant Wesley Beschorner to Little Rock for a visit. He convinced Starr that the Coyotes wanted him to play football, but there were a couple of hurdles to clear before that happened.
“I had to take a summer class in order to get into USD, then after a couple times trying, going in not taking it seriously, I got a 19 on my ACT,” Starr said. “Without the help of Coach Beschorner and Amy Jurrens (who helped him with the summer class) I wouldn’t even be in college. It was a really slow start for me, I just didn’t have any direction.”
Starr sat out the 2009 season as a redshirt and did not play at all in 2010 because of academic issues. He dropped a class that made him a credit short and wasn’t able to get that credit back during the summer. It cost him an entire season.
It was about that time that the talented Starr began making plays in practice and people noticed.
“The kid could have packed it in, gone to a lower level and played, but he was true to his word,” Meierkort said. “We took the chance on him, even when he stumbled and had to wait two years to play. I haven’t had a lot of players worth waiting two years for but he certainly was.”
“The NFL has always been my dream but I’ve had numerous people tell me that was never going to happen, that just doesn’t happen to kids from Little Rock, Iowa,” said the 22-year-old son of Tom Starr and Shellie Ver Steeg. “I told myself if I wanted to do this, now was going to be the time. Don’t be here five years later wishing you would have done that. And things just kind of developed into what they have.”
Today, Starr will play his final game at the DakotaDome. He’s no longer the misguided youngster but a legitimate professional prospect on the verge of becoming the all-time sack leader at South Dakota. With his next sack, Starr passes A.J. Schable, an Ida Grove, Iowa, prep product now living in Beresford, as the school’s best with 28.
When he was finally able to get on the field, Starr had a breakout campaign in 2011, charting 14 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He was named first-team All-Great West Conference as a defensive end.
Last fall, in Joe Glenn’s first season as head coach, Starr moved to outside linebacker and earned second-team honors in USD’s first season in the Missouri alley Football Conference. Starr tied for third on the team with 74 tackles (4 sacks, 7 tackles for loss) for a team that won just once in 11 games.
He has continued to excel this season in a bounce back campaign for the Coyotes, who take a 4-5 record into today’s game against South Dakota State.
“I’ve coached some kids who have a hot button, but I’ve never coached a guy this good that has that burn to play every down as hard as he possibly can, with as much effort and as much toughness and as much speed and quickness and desire to win every play,” Glenn said. “It doesn’t make any difference if you’re an All-American or a third-teamer going against him, you better be ready. He’s not out to hurt anybody but he wants to win and he wants to make everybody around him better. He flat out gets after it every play.”
Glenn, a veteran of 26 seasons as a head coach who’s tutored several future pros, thinks Starr will be playing on Sundays next fall.
“There is no doubt in my mind he is going to be a terrific player at the next level,” Glenn said. “I base a lot of that on his size. I think the scouts wish he was a step faster as far as his 40 (yard dash) time but what they don’t know is from A to B in the box or anywhere near, if he wants to get there he’ll get there.”
NFL scouts have been showing up at USD practices a lot lately and according to whatever of the various websites that rate prospects you choose to follow, Starr ranks as the No. 1 small college linebacker prospect (NFL draftdiamonds), the No. 2 small college draft prospect (Draft Daddy), the 40th outside linebacker (NFL Draft Scout) and the 44th outside linebacker (CBS Sports).
“I’ve been fortunate to have some good coaches come through here,” Starr said. “Coach (Jake) Sprague taught us a lot about playing the trenches in my first year and had a lot to do with my pass rush. Coach (Marquice) Williams has probably been one of the most influential coaches in my life on and off the field. He coached me last year when I transitioned to outside linebacker and helped me make decisions as a man. Now Coach (Joe) Ford has taken over and is doing a heck of a job with all the other outside linebackers as well.
“And I can’t forget about Coach Meierkort. He was Tyler Starr 100 percent, he would have gone to war with me. He knew I could do it and put faith in me, kind of put my name out there when the scouts came to see Tom Compton and other guys. He will always be a dear friend to me.”
The future remains to be seen, but there’s little doubt that hard-charging USD Coyote with his trademark long gold locks flowing from under his helmet has a chance to make his dreams come true.
Starr will graduate in December with a degree in sports management, then turn his attention toward the NFL. He has already been invited to take part in a couple of scout bowls and is hoping for an invitation to the NFL combine in Indianapolis next spring.
Yes, the one that so many people follow religiously on television, watching the players go through a multitude of physical tests.
“I’ve been going through life where it’s been so far away,” Starr said. “Now it’s like does the hard work and determination pay off or is it just teasing you? I’m just anxious to see what happens.”