Northwestern’s much-maligned rushing attack is under the microscope throughout camp. Everyone wants to know whether the Wildcats will be able to get something consistent going on the ground after the team simply struggled to make any kind of impact on the ground. The top rusher, as we all know, was quarterback/do-everything Kain Colter and no one stepped up to really take ownership of the position after Mike Trumpy’s injury.
Trumpy, from all accounts, is getting back to the swing of things and has looked impressive in his early practices. At least impressive for a guy still working his way back from a torn ACL and another season ending disappointingly on the shelf.
Pat Fitzgerald is still going to sift his way through his running backs. The running back by committee does not appear to be going anywhere. Not yet, at least. Not unless someone impresses in camp. That might make fans uncomfortable considering this is largely the group that disappointed so much last year.
In steps some new blood. And I am not talking about freshman Malin Jones. The highly touted running back from Joliet will certainly get his chance. But so too will Northwestern’s newest running back.
You may recognize him despite the change in number. That would be Venric Mark, the speedster that Northwestern tried to get the ball to as much as Kain Colter last year in a lot of ways. Mark will no longer be out wide, but in the backfield. But it will all be the same goals for Northwestern: get the team’s arguably fastest player in open space with the ball in his hands.
Last season, Mark had 104 rushing yards to just four receiving yards, doing most of his damage on special teams as a kickoff and punt returner. He had just one catch to 15 rush attempts. Northwestern could not do much more with him, so perhaps moving him to running back will do enough to get him the ball more. That is probably the thought behind the move.
The transition for Mark to running back began last season. He will likely set program records for kickoff returns and return yards this season. Those roles are not going anywhere. What might be changing is Mark getting more carries as an offensive weapon. Like with Colter, Northwestern is still trying to figure out where the junior fits best in the offense. And by fit best I mean creating yards, impact plays and touchdowns.
Pat Fitzgerald said Mark had the best summer he has had since arriving in Evanston and he has taken his fair share of snaps with the first unit. Mark played running back in high school and Fitzgerald said that the position came back to him naturally as he worked more at that position in the spring.
“On offense, his role is more clearly defined,” Pat Fitzgerald said at Big Ten Media Day. “We have him in the backfield. We put him out at receiver to give him space and to start his career. As a high school running back, he was very effective at that. Going towards that last half of his career, we looked at where he stood and what our needs were and that’s why we made the decision at the end of last year and put him at running back.
He has really run with that and embraced it. Moving into his kicking game role, he’s one of the best in the conference, if not in the country so he will continue to have that role. What I’ve liked the most about V[enric Mark] this fall in camp is his attitude. He’s been tremendous; he’s like a kid in a candy store out there. He’s having fun and really trying to help the young guys.”
Of course, Mark has a lot of guys he will be sharing the ball with and it seems nobody has quite distanced themselves.
Mark and Trumpy will be joined by Tyris Jones and Treyvon Green, who is not yet practicing after a hospital stay following a hit in practice Friday but has joined the team in Kenosha. Fitzgerald is excited about the depth he has at running back now. He believes in the group he has.
But, you cannot blame fans for being a little skeptical. Not with the fact Northwestern has struggled to establish a consistent ground game since Tyrell Sutton was running in the backfield and have not had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2006.
Venric Mark may be part of the group to change that.
If the offensive line can open up the space for him, Mark may certainly do that.