As Northwestern's season has taken a turn for the worse, the discussion about whether the Wildcats' could have Venric Mark back for next season has heated up. Mark is a senior, but could potentially be eligible for a medical redshirt at the end of the year if his injury keeps him out for the rest of the season. At first it was speculation, but after Pat Fitzgerald's comments at his weekly press conference, it appears to be a real discussion inside the Nicolet football building.
In order to be eligible for a medical redshirt, Mark has to have competed in fewer than 30 percent of NU's games and he must be held out of those games for medical reasons, not just because NU wants to save him for next year. He also can't participate in a game in the second half of the season. Technically, Mark meets all of those requirements so far. He's participated in three games (25 percent) and barely played in two of them, so he would have a good case in that respect. Also, the last game he played in was the sixth game of the season against Wisconsin, and that falls in the first half of the season.
[Update: An earlier version of this piece noted the threshold was 20 percent, not 30 percent. The rule changed in 2011. The entire current bylaw is attached here: Medical Hardship Bylaw. Thanks to Paul Kennedy of NU Sports Information for the document.]
The bigger variable is whether Mark will be available to play later in the season. NU can't hold him out just because it wants him to play next year. Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune reported that Mark may have a leg fracture, so if that's the case, it makes sense that he's been held out so long. However, is it enough for him to have to sit out for another month? NU has been very secretive about the injury, so who knows, but that's certainly something to watch. If Mark is technically cleared for, let's say, the last week of the season, NU can't still (truthfully) hold him out. The Wildcats have certainly done their homework and since Fitzgerald seems to think Mark will be eligible, that might speak to the severity of the injury. Or it might just mean that if he doesn't play again, he's eligible for a redshirt year. Again, who knows.
This conversation also depends on whether Mark wants to play another year. NU fans would love to think he wants to be back — and admittedly it doesn't seem like the biggest obstacle here — but it's still something to consider.
Update: Teddy Greenstein reported that it might be more than just "something to consider."
If Mark can come back in 2014, that's obviously a boost for the Wildcats. Who doesn't want their best player to return? However, it's not the end of the world if he doesn't get a waiver. Mark is most deadly on the option and zone read, and NU will likely cut down on how often it uses those plays next season, regardless of who is quarterback. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall does a good job of forming the offense around the team's personnel, and Trevor Siemian's and Matt Alviti's strengths aren't as conducive to an option-heavy offense as Kain Colter's are. Alviti can run, but I'd expect more of a Dan Persa-like offense with him running the show than a Colter-like offense.
Plus, the Wildcats will already have a strong group of running backs next season. Sophomore Stephen Buckley and junior Treyvon Green (if he hasn't disappeared) will be back, as will true freshman Warren Long. The incoming recruits look impressive, too. Auston Anderson said NU plans to use him like Mark, while Justin Jackson has been obliterating the Northern suburbs this season. Jackson's stats here — 351 yards on 12 (!!!) carries — and here, here, here and here are ridiculous.
So regardless, NU's future at running back seems to be in decent shape. However, getting Mark — arguably the Wildcats' best player — back certainly can't hurt. If this year continues to spiral downhill, that might be the story of the final third of the season.