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Northwestern football's most important players -- No. 10: Venric Mark

Over the next couple of weeks, InsideNU will reveal its rankings of the most important players on Northwestern’s football team. Past production, position and potential, among other criteria, were taken into account. We only ask one thing from you: If there’s one player you believe is pegged too high or low, reserve your venom until after reading the explanation. With that, here’s No. 10: running back Venric Mark.
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You would not have a hard time convincing me that Mark deserves to be higher on this list. With him missing most of last season, Northwestern endured a seven-game losing streak and failed to qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2007. That came a year after Mark’s unexpected star turn, in which he rushed for more than 1,000 yards and earned All-American honors as a kick returner while leading the Wildcats to 10 wins.

Mark was tremendous in 2012, so good that when he was named to watch lists for three major awards (Maxwell, Doak Walker and Paul Hornung) heading into 2013, there were few eye rolls – the default reaction for preseason watch list nominations – and (probably misguided) optimism he could win them.

If Mark even comes close to replicating what he did in 2012, well yeah, he should be higher on this list. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect him to do that, though. For one, running back is one of Northwestern’s deepest positions. Even if Mark wasn’t granted a fifth season of eligibility, the Wildcats would have plenty of options at tailback – including Treyvon Green, Stephen Buckley, Warren Long and two highly regarded freshmen (Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson).

While Mark will enter the season atop the depth chart, the players below him will get their share of carries, if only to limit the amount of wear and tear Mark deals with as a running back and significant special teams contributor.

Another reason Mark won’t match his numbers from 2012? The playbook. Kain Colter’s graduation in the offseason leaves the Wildcats with one starting quarterback, Trevor Siemian, whose pocket-passing skill set will force coordinator Mick McCall to tweak the offense. You won’t be seeing as many of those read-option plays that worked so well in 2012, mainly because Siemian can’t run like Colter could.

Siemian’s superior passing skills should result in a more pass-focused offense – a shift that will come at the detriment of Mark’s statistics, as the fifth-year senior generated a sizeable chunk of his rushing yards off option plays. This isn’t to say that Northwestern can’t run option stuff with Siemian – remember his touchdown in the Gator Bowl? – only that it’s not likely to happen as often as it did with Colter under center.

Those two factors – lots of depth at running back, and the allocation of carries therein; an offense geared more towards the pass – pushed Mark to the 10 spot. If, at the end of the season, it’s clear I underestimated Mark, I don’t think it will be because of his contributions as a tailback. If Mark proves me wrong, he’ll do it by summoning the dazzling kick return skills that made him one of the nation’s most exciting players in 2012.

And, really, I wouldn’t put it past him. Mark can fly, put defenders on ice skates with unexpected jukes and cuts and absorb contact while keeping his feet. He’s really fun to watch, and if he can stay on the field, he’ll do wonders for a team that struggled to score points last season.