A New Mark

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.

  • KP

    Mark was always one of the most fun players to watch on the field. You just never know when he’s going to pull a miracle run out…

  • vaudvillain

    The past couple of seasons, we have incorporated more and more option into our run game. Saw more of that last night on the BTN preview, and DiNardo talked about us becoming a “retro” option team. I wonder just how far down the option road we will be going this season. I have no arguments if it works — and given his size/speed, Mark is built more for outside runs than downhill power runs anyway…but I do wonder what our run/pass balance will look like. We’ve got this WR crew that everyone’s pretty high on, after all…

    • http://twitter.com/LakeThePosts Lake The Posts

      My thoughts exactly. I get the sense you’re going to see a ton of perimeter plays with Kain having a true option threat with Mark and a host of short passing options with a bevy of WRs. However, if we’re too consistent there, defenses will be cheating. We will have to establish some semblance of an ability to run it between the tackles to keep “D’s” honest.

  • VaWildcat

    very exciting to see Mark at RB; he could be awesome

  • skepticat

    Didn’t I see somewhere that Mark is 5’8″? Putting him at wide receiver wouldn’t seem to make a ton of sense, especially with the depth we’ve already got there.

    Also, this caught my attention from the BTN article LTP linked to yesterday:
    “McCall has explained to me that it really doesn’t matter that
    Northwestern hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2006…. It only matters that the Wildcats have a
    productive overall rushing game…. he views a short pass to a
    back the same as a run.”

    I’m generally loath to criticize coaching decisions, but at the same time it’s difficult to fix a problem if you don’t think you have one. It seems like what we used to be able to do with RBs is what we’re now able to do with QBs. We know McCall is a QB guy; perhaps our running struggles have more to do with scheme and development than actual talent. :-/

    • http://twitter.com/RevDJEsq Chad

      I think McCall’s point is a good one — you don’t need a 1,000 yard back if your running game as a whole (regardless of who does the individual running) is productive.

      For instance — last year, Northwestern averaged 176.2 ypg (37th in FBS, ahead of teams like Auburn, Georgia, Illinois, Oklahoma, etc.). We actually were a GOOD running team in total, although our yards per carry (3.9) were pretty low…so that’s a clear area to improve.
      (Also, we average 149.8 ypg in 2010….so we’re heading in the right direction).

      • Jim B

        How much of that was from Dan Persa though? especially on improvised runs? I wonder what the average was for just our RB’s? Venric offers what we didn’t have last year which is a guy that can take it all the way on any given play. I hope our O line is up to the task of opening some running lanes for him or all that speed won’t mean much.

        • wcgrad

          I think that Persa might have hurt the rushing total in 2011 with how much he got sacked. He didn’t have much speed last year to pick up yardage on broken plays. I don’t remember much rushing success from him.

          If you go back to 2010, then I think Persa would have had a significant rushing contribution. But people forget how many sacks that he took.

          • Jim B

            Perhaps I communicated poorly as I did not mean to refer soley to Dan Persa per se but the QB position. I meant to enquire as to how much of our run production came from the running backs instead of the QB. True that sacks count against runs and it would be interesting to know the impact of that.
            Personally, I would prefer a greater portion of our run game to come from the RB position. We saw that if the QB goes down in this system to injury and the backup QB is not of the same style (Watkins drop back replacing Persa scrambles) disaster follows. This time NU has roles reversed (Colter scambles, Seimien dropback) but same risks. My understanding is Zack Oliver is a drop back also. Not saying it won’t work but injury could spell disaster or make adjusting more difficult.

      • wcgrad

        I think the ypc is the more important number here. There’s no sense in doing something that the personnel are not suited for. McCall seems to be sensitive to this so the lack of rushing is as much do to scheme as to knowing we don’t have the type of RB athlete/ OLine athlete to be successful grinding out 50 rushing plays game in and game out. Having a 1000 yd rusher for the sake of having one is way overblown.

        Our O has managed to score points on just about everyone. Our D needs to step up and close out games.

        • http://twitter.com/RiseNU Philip R-R

          I think that is a really good point. Northwestern does get “rushing yards” through those short dump off passes and bubble screens. It is there.

          The important thing I think is achieving some measure of balance. That is what Pat Fitzgerald really wants and he has said it numerous times. He would like the Wildcats to be more balanced. But when the run game is clearly not working, it puts added pressure on the pass game and defenses are able to sit back and make plays and the offensive line has to work longer to keep the quarterback upright.

          The answer is probably a lot more complex than we are making it, I agree. It would be nice to have some consistency in a traditional running game or through option runs.

      • skepticat

        Well, right. McCall (and Fitz) are right in that stats are for chumps: win games and it doesn’t really matter what you do. And I give them all the credit in the world for developing our QBs and keeping offensive production relatively consistent despite injuries, shuffling QBs, and “committees” of running backs.

        At the same time, I suspect you’ll find a correlation between wins and teams that are balanced and able to grind out yards on the ground, especially in the 4th quarter of close games. I don’t want a 1000-yard rusher just because it’s cool; that 11-play, all-run, clock-draining drive at the end of last year’s Nebraska game was, to me, one of the key reasons we won. I’m glad (and somewhat amazed) we were able to do that. But when the backup QB is the team’s leading rusher — and while I know he
        played some snaps at WR, I don’t think Colter ever lined up as a RB —
        that’s an eyebrow-raiser for me. So I don’t think it would hurt for the OC to say: yes, we need to improve in this area.

        I’m not sure if your stats are pre-bowl or something, but the NCAA has different numbers: 45th overall (behind Auburn and Illinois), 7th in B1G, 167 yds/gm and 3.75 yds/carry:
        http://www.ncaa.com/stats/football/fbs/current/team/1025
        You compare us to other similarly ranked teams, what we lacked in yds/carry we made up for in attempts (over 100 more attempts than the 3 teams above us). It’s less that we were successful at running, and more that we just kept trying to.

        • skepticat

          Ha. And just to prove stats are for chumps: the #1 running team, at 346.50 yds/game and 5.62 yds/carry? Army. Who had 3 wins. One of which was against us. How’s that to make your head spin? :-)

    • Jim B

      I understand your point of needing a running game but having Mark at WR at least got him on the field and hopefully into space to make a run out of a short pass. I understand he has added about 20 lbs this year. That will help as he clearly did not have the size to get hit continually by lineman last year.

    • CatFanSeattle

      This is not meant as a bash of McCall but our struggles in the running game are a direct result of the offensive philosophy since McCall became OC. Prior to his arrival NU ran a spread offense. The spread is designed to stretch the defense both horizontally, by lining up 3-5 WR in wide splits, and vertically by throwing the ball more often downfield and wide (both deeper outs and sideline patterns). Since McCall’s arrival NU has lined up in a spread formation, but has de-emphasized the downfield and wide patterns, focusing instead on the short routes he references in the quote above.

      There are advantages to the shorter routes, the primary ones being higher completion percentages of the QB’s and (presumably) fewer interceptions. These are obvious to see as both Persa and Colter have had excellent completion percentages and few INT’s. The disadvantage is that the short routes allow the safety’s to creep up a little, the corners to pinch in a little and the LB’s to wait an extra second or so to make their read before they have to drop into coverage.

      The RB’s and OL haven’t been stellar, but IMHO the primary reason for lack of success running the ball has been that the defense knows they can play closer to the line and also be more aggressive as they have less reason to have to quickly drop into deeper/wider coverage.

      • skepticat

        Exactly. Walker implemented a spread-to-run offense: his goal was always to establish the run. McCall is more of a west-coast offense guy like Joe Tiller had at Purdue; I think the run is greatly de-emphasized. McCall’s statement I think is evidence of that.

        Then again, 60% of our plays last season were rushes. So I don’t know.

        I bring it up because it’s sort of the first indication to me that the coaches may not actually be concerned about not having a dominant, go-to running back or a consistent run game. Not sure what I think of that. :-/

        • CatFanSeattle

          I haven’t looked closely but I imagine that the run/pass ratio between Walker’s teams and Fitz’s teams are very similar. Both want to run the ball. The difference is in the mix of pass plays. Walker was more willing to take the risks of the deeper/wider throws (Incompletion, INT) for the rewards of opening the running lanes by truly spreading out the defense.

          Personally I like the more aggressive approach. My biggest gripe with Fitz/McCall is how much they *try* and sit on a lead in the 2nd half. They don’t have the defense to protect a lead, if anything once they have a lead they should open it up a little more to extend it. My .02 :)

        • Estif

          But another hallmark of the Walker years was the no-huddle. We used to score gobs of points and wear defenses down by playing too fast for them to sub or get the right personnel on the field. Whenever we have gone to the no-huddle, particularly in games where we’re behind (Army is a notable example) it seems to bring a real spark and lead to good offensive performance, but it only happens in spurts. In 2000 we played about 3/4 of the snaps this way, but nowadays is more of a novelty or attempt at a rally. I recall that the big offensive innovation in 2000 was as much about the no-huddle as it was about the spread. Of course, it was nice having Kustok in there calling plays at the line, but I’d like to see us do this more consistently. It seems to work well whenever we do.

  • MF

    I hope venric sleeps and showers with a ball in his arms. We can’t have any fumbles!

    • Jim B

      Yes that was a problem for him early on if I recall correctly

  • Jim B

    Oddsmakers have us a 1 1/2 pt favorite at Syracuse. Hope they know something.

  • Estif

    With Mark at RB, does that mean we’ll see some two back sets? It seems he would struggle in pass protection, which is a pretty important role for an RB. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think we’ve used a fullback in the 12 years I’ve been watching NU football…at least not with any consistency. Any indication that they’re looking at putting Trumpy (or maybe Jones) and Mark on the field at the same time? Not that they’re built like FBs, but they’re a lot bigger than Mark.

    • Tom Maycock

      Yes, I think you’ll see a lot of two-back set (it was pretty common last year actually), and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Tyris Jones get a lot of time as that 2nd back.

      • Estif

        Thanks…I guess maybe I haven’t been looking for it as much in previous years, but I will this year. We haven’t ever had an FB on the depth chart as far as I can remember (and we won’t this year either) but it will be interesting seeing how they might build a running game around Mark. He’s fun to watch and those little guys can be tough to tackle, especially when they’re as fast as he is.

        • Tom Maycock

          I was really impressed with Tim Riley’s blocking ability last year in his late-season role as a SuperBack. He struck me as the closest thing to a FB we’d had in a long time, albeit in minimal appearances. He was involved as a key blocker on a few short-yardage TD plays as I recall, and had a spectacular catch in the bowl game. I’m not sure how he’s progressed since then, but he looked to have the makings of a classic blocking/catching fullback to me. Will be interesting to see if he continues in that role.

  • Mark

    I hope Mark works out and Trumpy is completely recovered. I don’t want to go too far with this but remember when Jamie Morris was the tailback at Michigan – 5’8″ and 180. Of course Michigan was a pounding, power team, but Morris certainly held up to Big Ten play very well.

  • cece

    In Chicago, it’s fun to listen to WSCR, 670 on the radio dial, post Bears games, even in the event of a loss. actually, especially in the event of a loss because Doug Buffone (ex Bears player from oh, I can’t remember the exact years, but the early 70s, for those not from Chicago) consistently screams about the team forgetting to establish a running game. whenever there’s a discussion about the running game, whatever the team, I always imagine Buffone yelling about it on the radio. and, I agree with him, it’s important to figure out not one person, but how to establish the run. in the case of the cats, the QB will be a big part of the running game.

    • Buckyor

      When I lived in Wisconsin, I loved listening to a Bears’ broadcast after a loss. I only wish I could hear that 16 times a year.

  • cardiac cat fan

    I’m excited to hear from several outlets that Venric is not only performing well in camp, but also that he is mentally dialed in. I wanted to see more of his talent last year but you could tell Fitz was waiting for him to settle into his roll. It’s nice to hear Fitz speak so well of him now.

    The BTN hosts said last night that the cats were looking “retro” with the option game. Colter in his interview mentioned that the option was his favorite play. If Venric Mark does earn the starting roll that is going to give the ‘Cats some speed at running back that we haven’t had since Damien Anderson (Sutton was a very strong, great vision runner, but not as fast as Anderson). Hopefully NU took some notes on how Chip Kelly uses his smaller, speedy RBs at Oregon.

    GOOD LUCK, VENRIC!