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12-19-2007, 03:28 AM
Starks auditioning for next year's job
By Chris Harlan, Times Sports Staff
Published: Wednesday, December 19, 2007 1:29 AM EST


PITTSBURGH ? Steelers tackle Max Starks believes he?ll someday return to being a full-time starter. Whether that?s in Pittsburgh or somewhere else, he doesn?t know.

?I feel that I can play and hopefully I can play somewhere,? said Starks, who lost his starting job during training camp. ?I?d love to come back here but, you know, as a back-up it would be hard to say yes.?

The 25-year-old Starks becomes an unrestricted free agent at season?s end and will receive a considerable pay raise wherever he signs. He was a restricted free agent after last season and the Steelers offered him only a one-year contract.

No one has told him anything since.

?I?ve just been focusing on finishing out this year and doing whatever they tell me to,? Starks said at practice on Tuesday. ?I imagine they?ll approach me in the off-season and I guess that?s probably when (discussions) will start. I haven?t heard anything yet.?

He?ll get a national-television audition Thursday night when he replaces injured left tackle Marvel Smith in the starting lineup against the Rams in St. Louis. Starks started at right tackle the past two seasons, which included the team?s Super Bowl run, before Willie Colon took his job.

So Starks might only have a few games left in a Steelers jersey.

?Every time you?re out there playing it?s always an audition because you don?t know if a team is going to trade you or if a team is going to cut you or ? in my case ? your contract is going to be up,? Starks said. ?You always have to look at every opportunity as if it is an audition because you don?t know where you?re going to end up.?

A back injury forced Smith to miss two of the Steelers? last four games and now he?s certain to miss Thursday?s game. The disc problem worsened during Sunday?s loss to Jacksonville, leading Smith to allow four sacks.

He was replaced by Starks late in the fourth quarter.

?I am happy with the opportunity to play,? Starks said. ?The circumstances, I?m not happy about them. Marvel is a great player and a great left tackle for us. My job is to be a back-up and to fill in wherever they need me. Just so happens it?s filling in for Marvel.?

Smith, 29, becomes an unrestricted free agent after 2008, when his six-year, $26 million contract expires. He?ll turn 30 before next season. Little-used third-year player Trai Essex is the only other tackle on the roster.

So the Steelers must make a decision.

?I was drafted here, I love Pittsburgh,? Starks said, ?it?s whether they want me or not. It?s going to be interesting.?

Being left-handed, Starks played primarily left tackle while at Florida but said he?s willing to play either position.

?My rookie year I even went in for Alan (Faneca) during the Buffalo game and played left guard,? Starks said. ?I?m an offensive lineman first and a tackle second.?