There are a number of reasons why Northwestern’s offense struggled last season. A shaky offensive line. Conservative playcalling. A lack of big plays. The biggest issue, though, was injuries. More specifically, injuries to one of NU’s best players: running back Venric Mark.
After missing most of the first four games because of a hamstring injury suffered in preseason camp, Mark injured his left ankle on a play near the goal line in NU’s 35-6 loss at Wisconsin and missed the final six games of the season. Mark was healthy for only one full game: home against Ohio State.
Granted an extra year of eligibility through a medical hardship waiver, Mark will look to regain the form that made him one of the nation’s most dynamic offensive threats in 2012. His totals from that season, in case you forgot, are pretty impressive: 1,366 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns; 280 punt return yards and two touchdowns; 416 kick return yards; 104 receiving yards and one touchdown.
Mark will need to be at full strength to even come close to hitting those marks in 2014. We won’t know whether he is until the fall, but he at least seems to be moving in that direction – and quicker than expected.
After undergoing surgery this winter on his left ankle – a procedure that consisted of, according to Mark, an incision the size of a fingernail to remove two loose bodies – Mark said this week he is three weeks ahead of schedule on his rehabilitation.
“I feel a lot better,” Mark told reporters Tuesday. “I’ve been away from football, it seems like, for two years. I mean, it hasn’t been that long, but I’m feeling better. I feel good. I’m almost fully recovered from the injury. I’m three weeks ahead of schedule, so I really can’t complain.” Mark also said he is sprinting and cutting. “I’m sprinting, I’m running, I’m cutting,” he said. “I’m getting back into football – what I love doing. So, that’s why I’m happy right now.”
A status update on Mark’s health five months away from the start of the season doesn’t mean a whole lot. He’s progressing, and that’s good news for NU. But what matter is that he’s ready to go when NU lines up against Cal at Ryan Field on August 30. With Kain Colter, among other things, graduating in the offseason, NU will need a shifty, explosive player like Mark in its backfield.
He’s one of the few players on this team that’s a threat to take it to the house any time he touches the ball. And while NU’s rushing game could get by without Mark for a few games – running back is arguably the Wildcats’ deepest position – it’s plain that the Wildcats are a better team with him on the field than without him.