Welcome back, Venric Mark.
Last year, as a true freshman, Venric Mark was a revelation, a 5-foot-10 will-o'-the-wisp who fearlessly returned kicks, played some at wide receiver and provided the 'Cats the kind of speed they had rarely possessed. But then, at this season's start, his role was reduced to just a returner, and through its first four games he carried the ball not at all and had not even one reception.
Five pounds. They were the cause of the demotion.
"He's in better shape than he was when he reported to camp. That's why he's getting a more significant role," Pat Fitzgerald says when asked the reason behind that. "Hopefully he's learned a lesson that you can't come in not in elite-level shape and expect to play. I'm not, we as a staff aren't going to tolerate that. So he made some choices this summer to not get himself in great shape, it took us a little over a month to get his butt in shape, and now that he's in better shape, he's getting a role."
Was he surprised that Mark reported to camp out-of-shape?
"No. He's a young guy. Young guys do young things. He got a little fool's gold, played as a true freshman, thought he had all the answers. So, we'll see. I mean, he's great in the kicking game. He's playing his butt off in the kicking game. So we'll see what happens."
Is he happy with the way Mark responded to his loss of playing time?
"I don't know. I'll let you know at the end of the year. I haven't sat down and talked to him. But all those guys get it. They understand the expectations and if you don't come to camp in elite-level shape, I'm moving onto someone else. And if you get your butt in better shape, maybe I'll let you play again. It's not real complicated. I was that guy too once as a freshman. I went (home) to Orland Park, took a summer school class at Moraine Valley Community College, didn't pass the conditioning test, watched Hugh Williams play a lot of football my sophomore year. So you get what you deserve, you reap what you sow, right? I learned that a long time ago. I don't know. Maybe through my experience, I get a little bitter."
"I feel I was in shape," Venric Mark will say minutes later. "Maybe not like when I first got to Northwestern. I was also a track runner (in high school) and I ran summer track, so I was in my top, peak shape. I also came in a little bit heavier than I did as a freshman because I was trying to gain weight. I came in pretty big, but I'm doing OK right now. I've lost that now and I'm ready to go."
How big did he come in at?
"About 178. I was trying to gain, so I really wasn't running like I was supposed to."
And what's he at now?
"I'm down to 173."
Could he really see the difference in the way he was running with just five added pounds?
He smiles. "I couldn't see a difference, but they apparently did. I wouldn't argue with coach. If he felt that way, then I'm going to try and change. Which I did.
Does he feel faster now?
"Yeah. I do."
Fitz said he went through the same thing after his freshman year, that he thought he had it made and had to learn a lesson. Has Mark learned a lesson?
"I did. I think coach hit it on the head. I thought I would come in, I thought I would play a lot. I practiced very well, I gave it my all, I ran as fast as I can, but sometimes it just doesn't work out. Instead of me being negative, I just helped uplift my teammates and I think they see that. So as long as I buy into the program, I think everything's going to be OK."
Playing time is a player's life line and so, when his was cut, it is no surprise to hear Mark admit that "I was mad at first. But, I mean, football is a team sport, so no matter what I had to cheer on my teammates. Special teams was my role at the time. I don't have to be happy with it, but I can do it to the best of my ability, 100 percent, and then work on trying to get in on offense. That's what I've been doing."
Getting in peak shape was one way he worked to get in on the offense. The other was watching film. "We're big on watching film, doing other things beside just coming out here and playing football," he explains. "Of course, when you're on the field, you need to produce. My father always told me, 'You can talk all you want. But when you're on the field, you need to make plays.' But the thing that goes with that is going in, watching film, knowing what your opponent's going to do. That's one thing I kind of lacked on where I've improved."
And now that he is getting onto the field more?
"It feels good. I'm just trying to keep upping my reps, keep getting more chances to get on the field, help my teammates."
He has averaged 23.4 yards on his 12 kickoff returns. That is sixth-best in the Big Ten. He has averaged 18 yards on his four punt returns. That would be the Big Ten's best, but he does not have the minimum number of runbacks required (1.2 per game). This is a shame since Venric Mark, at heart, is a punt returner and the unit that aids him in that chore is much improved. "We're blocking a lot better. We're blocking a lot better," is what Fitzgerald says when asked about that group's success.
"He's doing the same stuff. I didn't like his little High School Harry move trying to run around the whole field Saturday. But our guys up front are what's getting it done for him. He's dynamic, he's electric. He can make things happen every time he gets the ball in his hands. But what I think's improved from a year ago at this point, five games into the season, is the guys up front are taking pride in what we're doing."
"On punt returns, I feel I've improved. As a team, I think we've improved," echoes Mark. "I feel that my team, on jet, they're blocking better, we're trusting each other, I'm trusting them. But at times, I feel we still have to find that identity. I don't feel we've done as well as we can, as we know we can. Not just me, but as a unit."
Is punt returning, as he said last year, still his favorite thing to do?
"It is my favorite thing. A kick return is great. But I feel people, you have to love the spotlight to be a punt returner. That's my honest opinion. I believe punt returner is a lot harder than kick returner."
And does he like the spotlight?
"I do like the spotlight."