Tyrell Sutton was the last Northwestern running back to rush for 1,000 yards or more in 2006. Since then, no running back has come close to eclipsing that total and it has hindered the Wildcats offense.
During fall camp, 5-foot 8-inch Venric Mark outplayed Mike Trumpy and was named the starting tailback before Northwestern’s season-opening game against Syracuse. For the Wildcats, Mark hasn’t disappointed in his first two starts as running back.
Mark rushed for 82 yards against Syracuse and had a game-high 123 yards rushing last Saturday against Vanderbilt. Add in his kick and punt returning abilities and Mark has become the Wildcats most important player this early in the season.
“Since Tyrell, we’ve been looking for someone to take the ball and run with it,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald on Tuesday after practice. “We haven’t had that in a long time, so two games in; I would say we’re gaining on having that kind of back.”
While the depth of wide receivers being discussed before the season began, the running back corps has depth as well with Mark, Trumpy, Tyris Jones, Treyvon Green and Tim Hannahan. Not to mention the players that are redshirted.
The importance of having a feature back this season for the Wildcats hasn’t been greater in quite some time in Evanston. Northwestern’s spread offense allows for much better production from its tailbacks which will help this team throughout the season, especially on the road.
With Mark’s size, he isn’t typically regarded as an in-between the tackles type of running back but his toughness is unquestioned. Fitzgerald went as far to say that he believes Mark would want to fight him if he was told he couldn’t return kicks and punts along with his rushing duties.
“There was no question as to who was the most physical running back in the game on Saturday [against Vanderbilt]”, Fitzgerald said. “It’s a long year; I don’t think there’s anybody tougher.”
Although Mark hasn’t started many games at running back, his efforts on special teams have led to his increased value with the team. Last week, Mark was named Big Ten Co-Special Teams player of the week for his contributions against Syracuse.
In just two games, Mark has accumulated 204 yards combined in kick and punt returns with a touchdown. Mark scored on an 82-yard punt return against Syracuse in week one. With his added role as a running back, the Tomball, Texas native has raised his own expectations for himself this season.
“[I want to] try to rush for over 1,000 yards,” Mark said. “At least have five or six special teams returns [for touchdowns], just help the team win as much as I can.”
Playing one position in football is daunting enough but Mark will see the field in multiple roles this season and he gave credit to the Wildcats practice regimen. Mark also mentioned how Northwestern’s spread offense will help him with conditioning.
“That’s what this offense is built for,” Mark said. “We have Kain Colter who is a great quarterback, he’s always running around the field, this offense is built to [sustain] conditioning.”
Follow on Twitter @Midwaymadnes