CHICAGO — There’s a good chance you’ll see less of the pummeling hits Venric Mark absorbed so frequently from opposing defenders last season, but when he is met by a particularly crushing blow – and given the fact Mark plans to take on the same number, if not more, carries than the 226 he saw season, odds are he will run into his fair share – don’t expect Mark to be shaken up in the least.
When Mark gets lit up, it doesn’t appear to phase him, and that’s exactly the impression he wants to give off.
“When I get off the ground like that, that’s basically me telling the defender, ‘You’re going to have to hit me a little bit harder than that,’” Mark said Thursday at Big Ten Media days.
This season, Mark doesn’t want to have to send that message quite so often. The bludgeoning he took may not have forced him to miss too much game time in 2012, but Mark is making adjustments this season to try and ensure he enjoys an uninterrupted 13-game stretch of healthy and productive football.
That starts with a change in his mental approach. Mark’s mindset throughout most of his football existence has been courageously stubborn. “I may not be a 200-pound back, but I think I am,” he says. The fighter’s mentality he’s always had won’t change, and Mark promises to run as fearlessly and powerfully as ever before, but he also realizes the need to minimize the number of hits (and force of those hits) he takes in order to increase his chances of staying healthy the entire season.
Instinctively charging at tacklers and attempting to plow over defenders and isn’t the smartest way to avoid big hits, and Mark acknowledges he’s better off trying to evade, rather than punish, the opposition.
“A running back needs to have a lot of tools in his stable,” Mark says. “That goes back to me making smarter decisions.”
A learning moment for Mark came during the second half of last season’s week 3 win over Boston College, when Mark turned the corner on an option play and quickly hit a full-stride gallop, only to be de-cleated by an Eagles defender, who aimed low and planted his helmet into Mark’s lower body.
“I could have jab stepped or cut, but at that moment I was like, ‘I’m going to run him over,’” he said. “He went low on me. That’s something I did not expect, me being so small. Most guys want to tackle me up high.”
The biggest change, according to Mark, is trying to become more elusive. A quick mental rewind of Mark’s 2012 season, wherein he left countless defenders in his wake on punt returns and juked plenty more on handoffs and pitches, would seem to make his proclamation – to become even more elusive – an impossible goal.
But according to Mark, he wasn’t elusive enough – not on rushing plays, at least.
“I’ve been focusing on being more elusive, which is something I could always do,” he said. “I maybe didn’t show that as much last year, but this year, y’all will see.”
There is more depth at running back this season. Redshirt freshmen Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley, along with veterans Mike Trumpy and Treyvon Green, should help lessen Mark’s workload this season. But even if coaches do decide to reduce his carries, presumably in the interest of preventing the typical wear and tear of the running back position, Mark isn’t going to change what made him one of the best running backs in the Big Ten last season.
His ability to power through tacklers with reckless abandon, recover from big-impact hits without batting an eye and demoralize defenders with his unexpected toughness and bounce-back responsiveness, will remain.
Mark’s just going to be a little smarter about the way he runs the ball. No harm in that.