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Offseason Musings: Will Northwestern Running Back Venric Mark Regress in 2013?

Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.

Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.

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Any highlight-themed review of Northwestern’s 2012 season, of the Big Ten’s 2012 season, will include a hearty sample of Venric Mark runs, jukes, spins and kick returns. He was one of the most explosive players in the country last season, and just in case anyone was so unfortunate as to completely miss Mark’s dazzling game-breaking exploits, the numbers have you covered. With 1,366 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns, 6.04 yards per carry, 104 receiving yards, one receiving touchdown, 280 punt return yards and two punt returns for touchdowns, Mark was just as freakishly prolific on the statsheet as he was in the real world, where defenders hopelessly flailed and dove to impede his path – almost unfailingly to no avail.

Mark was brilliant, is what I’m trying to say.

Few expected this kind of breakout season from a previously special teams-affixed player, but as the yards and touchdowns piled up, and Mark and Colter turned the option-read into a synchronistic and unpredictable spread staple, Mark’s game-by-game production became a baseline expectation. Mark was consistent and productive all the way through, from September 1 at Syracuse (14 carries, 82 yards) to November 24 against Illinois (18 carries, 127 yards).

Looking ahead to next season, Mark will begin another potentially dominant campaign, and it will be easy – convenient, even – to expect similar production and consistency. Why shouldn’t Mark maintain, or even improve upon his immense 2012 season? Another year of option familiarity, combined with a more comfortable and healthily entrenched two-quarterback system, are beneficial luxuries Mark didn’t truly enjoy until the tail end of last season. A year’s experience at tailback should further boost his prospects.

Naturally, the argument cuts both ways. Defenses now have 12 games of tape to analyze and pick apart what made Mark so effective last season, and what made the option-read so difficult to contain. Coordinators will roll out new blitz packages and coverage schemes. Defenses will have a better grasp on how to defend a lightning quick scatback in space. An offseason of film study is a powerful thing. Maybe someone finds a crack in the system, a soft spot to attack. Maybe it all breaks down and Mark turns into a merely mediocre back with unrivaled athleticism and explosiveness, but no room to use it.

These are important topics to think about, and rest assured Wildcats coaches are studying up on whatever tweaks and stunts the Michigans and Ohio States and Nebraskas of the world might throw their way. Where those countervailing forces meet – where the defensive adjustments meet Northwestern’s offensive reinvention, where Mark’s slippery running style meets better-drilled and better-disciplined defenders, where last season’s relatively clean health bill (Mark suffered minor injuries against Boston College and Michigan State) meets the cruel physical brutalities of modern-day running back participation – will decide the answer to the above question.

There are too many disparate factors to weigh, too many elements outside of Northwestern and Mark’s control that could just as easily sap or augment his production. Making definitive statistical projections is never simple, and with Mark, where anything short of 1,366 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns is “regression”, the odds are stacked against numerical improvement. Equaling, let alone, eclipsing last season’s totals is a huge ask. Every reason cited above, the unavoidable tropes about defensive adjustments, will conspire against Mark breaking 2012’s statistical threshold.

But I’m not ready to make a definitive judgment. Mark was too good for too long last season, the option read grew cleaner and more effective as the year rolled along, and if we can safely assume another offseason of repetitions will help more than hurt Mark’s ability to break big runs and score touchdowns, then we have a very interesting debate topic on our hands. So my answer is that I don’t know the answer, if that’s even an answer to begin with.

Don’t be upset – I just can’t make up my mind. Not yet. It’s only May, after all.