Northwestern has suspended star running back Venric Mark for the first two games of the 2014 season "for a violation of team policy," the program announced Friday. He will miss dates with Cal and Northern Illinois.
"I made a mistake and am prepared to deal with the consequences of that," Mark said in a statement. "There's no one that holds me to a higher standard than the one I hold myself to, so nobody is more disappointed than I am."
Mark, who excelled in 2012 but missed most of last season due to injury, was granted a medical hardship waiver, meaning he could return for a fifth year in 2014. He figured (and still figures) to be Northwestern’s top playmaker on offense, and to offer some big play ability that was sorely missed last campaign. And up until Friday, reports coming out of training camp had been almost exclusively positive. But those take a backseat now.
The primary angle here is just how much Mark has let his teammates down. The fifth-year senior was being counted on as a leader not just of this offense, but of this team as a whole. And after being handed a second chance after last season’s injury debacle, the last thing to do was break a team rule. But that’s what Mark has done.
Mark did address that side of it. "First and foremost, I feel like I let my teammates down, and that feels the worst," he said. "I'm grateful to have another season to compete with this team. My focus moving forward is on working as hard as I can in camp and supporting my teammates in practice and on gamedays so that we can achieve our goals this season."
It should be noted that we have no idea what Mark did to deserve the suspension – and there’s a possibility that we’ll never know. It could be something small that provoked coach Pat Fitzgerald to feel the need to send a message. It could also be a serious transgression. But rules are rules.
For a program and a coach that pride themselves on leadership, dedication and accountability, the severity of this news shouldn’t be underestimated. At this point of the summer, everyone in that Northwestern locker room is told to focus in on and believe in a vision; to buy into what Fitzgerald and his staff are selling. To have any player, especially a senior, hinder that focus and belief is a serious infringement. Mark’s teammates and coaches should feel offended.
On the field, being without Mark for two games won’t be disastrous. But it won’t be insignificant either. Northwestern will be favored over both Cal and NIU, but neither game will be a cakewalk. Lest we forget, NU had an awfully difficult time a year ago with a Cal team that went on to go 0-11 against FBS schools. And NIU completed a 12-0 regular season, albeit against subpar opposition.
On the positive side though, this will be an NU team with a point to prove. This is also a better and more experienced team than last year’s. So coming off a down year, with the opener at home, Mark or no Mark, Northwestern should be able to start 1-0. Week 2 could be a tougher task though, with NIU being an unknown commodity at this point, and with the natural focus and intensity of Week 1 having worn off.
It will be an advantage having both games at home though. "We’ve typically gone on the road early, and we’ve played a lot of road openers," Fitzgerald said Thursday. "So to have the comfort of being at home should and hopefully will be an advantage." Those comments seem even more relevant 48 hours later.
Another advantage will be NU’s depth at running back. Mark is a unique player, so replacing what he brings to the table is implausible, but the Wildcats have a number of capable ball carriers. In fact, one of the byproducts of Mark’s missed time in 2013 was opportunity for others.
"I was really pleased with a number of guys [last season]," Fitzgerald said. "I thought Treyvon Green stepped up… Warren Long was poised and ready to take the next step, and then got a hamstring [injury] right as his opportunity presented itself. And up until [Stephen Buckley]’s injury, I thought he [Buckley] was really coming into his own. So those three guys got the lion's share of the experience coming back. So we expect those three guys to shoulder a pretty heavy load."
However, the unfortunate part about the timing of Mark’s suspension is that Buckley, coming off major offseason surgery, likely won’t be up to full speed right away in week one. Of the top three returning backs, Buckley’s style is the most similar to Mark’s. If he’s not ready to touch the ball at least 5-10 times early in the year, that just exacerbates the loss of Mark.
There's even the possibility that this opens the door for one of two freshmen. As we've speculated, either Justin Jackson or Solomon Vault could burn their redshirt at some point this season, so with a need at the position early on, that could come sooner than expected. Jackson has reportedly looked good so far in camp, as has Vault, who Fitzgerald compared to Mark on Thursday.
The most likely effect though of Mark’s suspension is that Northwestern leans heavily on quarterback Trevor Siemian. Green and Long will be solid options on the ground, but neither is a game-breaker, so offensive coordinator Mick McCall could utilize the pass to open up the offense.
However, even if Northwestern is able to survive Cal and Northern Illinois without its most potent offensive weapon, this is still an impediment with regards to the big picture. Mark will presumably enter the Penn State without having faced FBS competition in nearly a full calendar year. But maybe even more importantly, for a team with big aspirations, this is an extremely poor way to start the season -- if not in a tangible sense, certainly in principle.