Aaron Morse

Back On The Mark For The Northwestern Wildcats

Jan. 25, 2014 11:36 PM EST

Venric Mark suffered through multiple injuries in a lost 2013 season for Northwestern football.

He only participated fully in one game, NU’s heartbreaking loss to Ohio State. The loss started a downward spiral that didn’t end until a victory over Illinois in the season finale.

But this past week, for the first time in a long time, NU football received some good news. Mark is returning for a fifth season as he was granted a fifth year of eligibility by the Big Ten.

This is big news of course as Mark helps the offense in multiple ways. I’ve always thought the most underrated part of Mark's game is his ability as a punt returner. Northwestern fans suffered through Tony “Fair Catch” Jones in 2013. Jones only attempted to return nine punts on the season, averaging 7.1 yards per return. Meanwhile Mark returned 15 punts for an average of 18.7 yards and two touchdowns during his All-American 2012 season. That's a significant difference. Northwestern’s offense struggled mightily in 2013. It could have used some instant offense from its special teams, and none came last year.

Mark is a thrilling player who is one of the fastest in the Big Ten. I dare say he has “SEC” speed and will make a big difference in 2014. We all know he can run the football and catch the ball out of the backfield as well. In 2012, Northwestern was fourth in the country in punt return average; they dropped to 80th in 2013. In related news, they went from 10 wins to five.

Will Mark be as explosive in the running game as he was in 2012? Probably not. No Kain Colter means the read-option won’t be as effective. But his presence in the backfield is going to make life much easier for Trevor Siemian. Mark is the type of player the quarterback can just dump the ball to right after the snap and watch him make plays. I still expect him to reach 1,000 yards and his presence is going to open up opportunities for others.

NU struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone without Mark and I expect that to be at least partially rectified with Venric’s return in 2014. Certainly offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s play-calling needs to improve in that area as well.   

Northwestern has a lot of issues to work out on both sides of the ball, but they are nowhere near as bad as their 5-7 record might indicate. Siemian played hurt the majority of the season and showed what he could do when finally healthy against Illinois.

I think Venric Mark is worth at least two wins; combine that with better luck and we could see NU back to the nine-win level in 2014.

Need more proof?

The tape don’t lie