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Why the loss of Venric Mark doesn't ruin Northwestern's offense

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Two seemingly devastating pieces of news rocked Northwestern Wednesday evening. But is the loss of Venric Mark really as big as it appears?

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

And just like that, he was gone.

Or should we say, they were gone.

A former All-American. The focal point of Northwestern’s offense. A little bundle of quickness that could tear opposing defenses to shreds. Venric Mark. Transferring.

And then, as if it weren’t bad enough… Christian Jones. Arguably Northwestern’s top wideout. About to embark on his senior season. But now, a season-ending knee injury.

It was a pretty difficult Wednesday evening for Northwestern fans. Okay, it was more than that. It teetered on the edge of downright devastating. Just head to the comments sections below our two news articles and see for yourself.

But give yourself 12 or even 18 or 24 hours to digest the news, and take a step back. This isn’t the worst thing that could’ve happened to this team or this program. In fact, it’s far from it.

Let’s put aside all the offseason reports that he was feeling healthy and raring to go – which now seem perplexing and out of place – and look at what Mark was going to be for this team in 2014. That necessitates a balancing act of sorts. Factor in his breakout 2012 season, but also factor in last year and rational thinking.

Here’s what Venric Mark is: A big play threat, sure. An outstanding punt returner, absolutely. But also, a running back who was going to touch the ball 10-15 times per game, and occasionally spring a big play. And when he didn’t spring that big play, he wasn’t all that special.

In his outstanding junior season, Mark averaged 6.0 yards per carry, a number inflated by those big plays, and one which he couldn’t have been expected to produce again in 2014.

Last year, behind a considerably worse offensive line, Treyvon Green and Stephen Buckley averaged 5.4 and 5.3 YPC respectively (Mark averaged 3.1 in limited time). You can read into those numbers however you want, but all paths lead to the same conclusion: this loss isn’t catastrophic.

The one thing NU will sorely miss is Mark’s ability to change a game in 10 seconds. It’s not even necessarily those few game-changing plays themselves, but merely the threat of them. That ability, which is unparalleled on the current roster, gave the offense a different gear. It was also something defenses had to account for.

But there are many things that diminish the magnitude of this loss. Let’s list them.

  • We don’t want to shove this down readers’ throats, but running back really is NU’s deepest position -- or one of them. Green, Buckley, Warren Long, etc.
  • Freshmen Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault have looked very impressive in practice. Vault has even drawn comparisons to Mark.
  • The running back position continues to become devalued in the game of football. This was going to be a committee in the backfield anyway, and Mark was going to touch the ball 10-15 times per game, as I said. Thus, naturally, he’s just not as important to the team as many other players.
  • The expectation is that Northwestern’s offense will change in 2014, and become more pass-heavy. Again, that slightly diminishes the role of the running backs. As we tweeted…

And as our Kevin Trahan tweeted...

That list of players isn't short. It includes Trevor Siemian; Ibraheim Campbell; Chi Chi Ariguzo; Collin Ellis; Sean McEvilly; Paul Jorgensen; Brandon Vitabile; Nick VanHoose; maybe even Matt Harris, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Dean Lowry, Traveon Henry, Dan Vitale, and another offensive lineman or two. Some of those names might be pushing it a bit, but the positions those players play are valued disproportionately more than the running back position.

So will this offense be just fine? No, of course it won't. It will take somewhat of a hit. But in terms of conference record, it’s the difference between 6-2 and 5-3, not 6-2 and 3-5. It knocks the offense down from good to slightly above average, not good to pathetic.