Standing 5-foot-8, there are only six players in the Big Ten listed shorter than Northwestern’s Venric Mark. He’s not always easy to find behind an offensive line who’s average size is 6-5, 300. And even when opposing defenses find him, he hasn’t been easy to bring down. But a word of advice to oncoming defenders: Hit him. Lay him out. Push him out of bounds. Just be sure to keep your mouth shut afterwards.
“That’s the nature of the game. If someone makes a good hit, they’re going to want to talk,” Mark said. “I really like it. It really, really, really does fuel me. A lot! Even when I’m tired and they start talking, it’s just like bam! A switch is flipped. And then I’m ready to go again.”
There must be a lot of talking going on underneath the pile since Mark’s switch hasn’t been flipped off this season. No player has played bigger than Mark. The junior is second in the country among running backs in all-purpose yards. His 1,470 stands 20 yards behind Kent State’s Dri Archer, who leads the country averaging more than 212 all-purpose yards a game.
Last year he led the Wildcats in all-purpose yards, but 90.6 percent of his 1,140 came on special teams. In his junior campaign, Mark already surpassed that total primarily due to his work in the backfield. He’s rushed for 910 yards through eight games. He finished last season with 104.
“The success has been good right now. I feel like I can play a lot better. A lot, lot better,” Mark said.
That’s a scary thought for the Big Ten. What’s even more terrifying is this is Marks’ first full season at running back. The transition began in the middle of last year. His top performance came against Indiana, tallying 47 yards on four carries. This year he hasn’t rushed for less than 72 yards and boasts five 100 yard games.
So what caused the breakout season? More talking, specifically the label “RB 2.”
“It motivated me a lot. I basically, I wanted to get on the field being my junior year. I didn’t redshirt so I don’t have an extra year,” Mark said. “I talked to my mom and she was like, ‘It’s in your hands. Where do you want to go? If you want to sit on the sideline for four years, that’s on you. But that’s also a waste of your ability.’”
Mark won the starting job in fall camp and wasted no time displaying his talent in his first career start on the road against Syracuse. The Tomball, Texas native exploded for 281 all-purpose yards, including two touchdowns – neither of which came on the ground. He returned a punt 82 yards and caught a 21 yard pass for his second score of the game.
He’s gotten better too. Through the first three games Mark averaged 94 yards rushing a game. In the last five, he’s turned it up to 125 a game.
“It means a lot. It means that I’m achieving my goals and I just have to keep fighting Mark said. “That’s it. The season’s not over, at all, by any means. And we all have a common goal, not just myself. Individually, I’m happy all these things have happened, but we’re nowhere near close to where we want to go.”
Northwestern became the first bowl eligible Big Ten team with its 21-13 win over Minnesota on Oct. 13. The Wildcats could easily be 8-0. They held 11 point fourth quarter leads in both its losses this season to Penn State and Nebraska.
Through this the Wildcats have had two starting quarterbacks. Against Boston College, both Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter both attempted 20 passes. Colter now fills in at wide receiver for an offense that witnessed a lot of change within the last year.
Mark was one of those changes.
“I never doubted myself. Did I doubt other things? Yeah, because I wasn’t playing. But that’s just how football works. Everyone wants to be on the field,” Mark said. “Everyone wants the ball in his hands.”
And for now, no one who will have it more than Mark.