AMHERST, N.Y. -- Buffalo running back James Starks knew shoulder surgery now would cost him his final season of college football. He also knew he couldn't help his team if he wasn't healthy.
So Starks decided it was best to have his shoulder repaired and prepare for a shot at the NFL, leaving the defending Mid-American Conference champion Bulls without their all-time leading rusher.
"It was a hard decision," Starks said on Tuesday. "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 that much harder for me."
Coach Turner Gill said that tests revealed Starks, a fifth-year senior scheduled to graduate in December, has a labral tear in his left shoulder. Gill said doctors told him Starks should make a full recovery after four to six months of rehabilitation.
Starks holds school records with 3,140 yards rushing, 34 touchdowns rushing and 222 points scored. He already was being projected as an NFL prospect in next year's draft, and made the Doak Walker Memorial trophy watch list as one of the nation's top college running backs entering this season.
"I know he has an opportunity on the next level," Gill said.
Gill said Starks was injured during a scrimmage on Aug. 15. Initial attempts at rehabbing the injury were ineffective and an MRI revealed the labrum tear.
Further attempts to rehab the shoulder went nowhere, Gill said. Starks tried to practice despite the discomfort, but the injury soon proved to be too painful.
"I asked a lot of people and the best decision for me and the team was to have the surgery," Starks said.
The injury is a blow to a Bulls program coming off its best season -- and first with a winning record -- since joining the MAC in 1999. The Bulls went 8-6 last year to win their first MAC championship and make their first bowl appearance, a 38-20 loss to Connecticut in the International Bowl.
"We have a lot of great running backs that can take the load," Starks said. "It's just a temporary setback."
The starting job now likely belongs to Brandon Thermilus, a 5-11, 224-pound junior previously used as a bruising complement to the flashier Starks. Buffalo opens the season Sept. 5 at UTEP.
"The way I look at it, I've just got to pick it up," said Thermilus, who rushed for 454 yards and seven touchdowns last season. "I've got to play football, that's what I came here to do."
The Bulls already were entering this season with sophomore quarterback Zach Maynard taking over for Drew Willy, who finished his career at Buffalo by setting nearly every school passing record.
"Injuries are, and will always be, a huge part of football, but this one is particularly painful because of what James has meant to this program and community," Gill said. "However, this is an incredible opportunity for a group of very talented running backs that we have to step up and help us achieve our goals this season."