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Rivers follows his mentor to Green Bay

James Starks had given two years of advice but wanted to pass along something else to Marcus Rivers before leaving the University at Buffalo for the NFL: his shoes. Starks had purple and white Jordan sneakers that Rivers borrowed when working out, so the upperclassman told him to keep them.

You know the story about Starks, the Niagara Falls native who was a running back on UB's roster one year and won a Super Bowl with Green Bay the next. He was the Packers' sixth-round pick in 2010 and appeared in only three regular-season games but was their starter when they marched through the playoffs.

Rivers was intent on following in his footsteps, apparently to the extreme. The wide receiver from Lackawanna, passed over in the NFL draft last weekend, signed with the Packers as a free agent Sunday. He'll be reunited with Starks, his friend and mentor and one of the first people Rivers called after reaching the agreement.

"I was thinking that I could be just like James, coming in my rookie year and going to the Super Bowl," Rivers said Monday. "How great would that be? You know, it's a lifelong dream."

NFL teams have become enamored with big receivers. Rivers is 6-foot-5, 225 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. His longest reception last year was 29 yards, which raised questions about whether he had NFL speed. He could evolve into a possession receiver with his size and hands.

Starks is living proof that NFL teams will find a place for good players no matter how they arrived or where they played in college. Starks blossomed into a star at UB, which was hardly a football factory, but missed his senior season with an injury. Slowed by injuries and buried on the depth chart, he didn't play a down for Green Bay as a rookie until Week 10.

"Being with James is going to make the process much easier," Rivers said. "When I was at UB, James was always building me up and giving me confidence. He was telling me I'm a better player than I think, that I just needed to break the ice and I'm just scratching the surface of my talent."

Rivers had the ability to dominate in the Mid-American Conference but showed flashes of brilliance mixed with mediocrity. He had 10 catches for 114 yards and a touchdown in his best game last year, a loss to Northern Illinois, but often was contained in a struggling offense. He had 60 catches last season and 110 catches over his final two.

"Talent finds the field regardless of where you come from," Rivers said.

We'll see. Rivers could flourish once he's surrounded by elite players. He became a good receiver largely on talent alone. The key for him will be putting forth the effort needed to maximize his potential. He'll need to get stronger so he can use his frame and 36-inch vertical jump against bigger, tougher defensive backs in the NFL.

For now, he couldn't ask for a better situation. Green Bay had the best record last season at 15-1. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of the most accurate passers in NFL history, is coming off an MVP season. The Packers didn't select a wide receiver in the draft. Rivers will have an opportunity to develop with the best.

The future of veteran Donald Driver, taken in the seventh round in 1999 and now their all-time leading receiver, is uncertain. The Packers have established stars in Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings and another good one in James Jones. Former University of South Carolina star Tori Gurley spent last year on the Pack's practice squad.

"I'm thinking about all the great receivers they have that I can learn from and critique my game," Rivers said. "It's overwhelming. It's unbelievable. I'm like, 'I'm going to play with Aaron Rodgers?' But it's like my mom said, 'You can't go in there as a fan.' It's about business. At the end of the day, we're very happy."

email: bgleason@buffnews.com