by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Venric Mark is a man of many trades. In his time at Northwestern, he’s been a wide receiver, a punt and kickoff returner and 1,000-yard rusher. Last year against Michigan, he added one more position to his resume: linebacker.
Mark was used on defense as a spy on Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson on a few defensive plays. His primary job was to contain the Wolverines’ star, who was the Big Ten’s fifth-leading rusher.
“(The coaches) basically just said, ‘Run around, contain him,’” Mark said. “So that’s what I did.”
Northwestern lost 42-24, but on the plays Mark was in, Robinson threw two interceptions and was held in check on the ground.
“I think it was pretty average a year ago from a standpoint that, at the end of the day, I don’t think Denard ran on any of those plays,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “But at the end of the day we were just trying to get, from a gameplan standpoint, something we thought we could take advantage of if he decided to run.”
This year, however, don’t expect to see Mark lining up on defense, or any non-defensive player, for that matter.
“Our linebacker corps, I think this is one of the most athletic linebacker corps that we have had — this year (is),” Mark said, “and I’m sure they’ll be able to get the job done.”
Robinson is averaging nearly 28 more rushing yards per game this season, so he’s as potent a threat to run as ever, but NU’s run defense is much improved, meaning it won’t need the help of a running back to contain the Wolverines’ best weapon. Last year, the Wildcats ranked No. 10 in the Big Ten in run defense, and now they’re No. 4 in that category.
“This year we’re just taking that attitude (that) people aren’t going to run,” defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt said, “and obviously (playing) the Big Ten teams, things are going to pop, but if you just regroup and refocus, you should be good.”
However, Robinson is a different kind of player than anyone NU has seen yet.
“I don’t really know who I’d compare him to, to be honest,” Arnfelt said. “That’s kind of a stumper.”
The Wildcats have yet to face a rusher with better numbers than Robinson — Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah is the closest, with nearly 27 fewer yards per game. Not only that, but Robinson is arguably the most elusive rusher in the conference, and defending a quarterback is different than defending a running back.
“I think it’s just about the discipline (and) about the rush lanes,” Arnfelt said. “You’ve just got to be aware. You can’t be making out of control moves, letting those lanes free up, because they’re going to take it. Last week in their game, they proved that even if you do give them lanes they can throw over you. I think it’s going to be a great test.
“If you watch them on film, I think it’s just a breakdown here and a breakdown here. We’ve just got to eliminate those.”
Last year’s team had too many of those breakdowns. This year, there won’t be any gimmicks: no running backs on defense and nothing special compared to other weeks. Execution, like it has been all season, will be the name of the game for the Wilcdats’ defense on Saturday.
“I don’t think there’s a magic formula that any team can do, really,” Arnfelt said. “You’ve just got to go out there and execute, and if you don’t take pride in that, something’s wrong with you.”