Aug. 13, 2014
Persistent rain fell on southeastern Wisconsin on Tuesday morning, but it was not enough to prevent the Wildcats from getting in their fourth practice at Camp Kenosha. Afterward, Skip Myslenski caught up with key members of the running backs group, including veterans Venric Mark and Treyvon Green, and its leader, coach Matt MacPherson.
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
Venric Mark stands there in front of a wall and waits. Days earlier it was revealed that he had been suspended for the `Cats first two games for a violation of team rules and now, for the first time, he will take questions about that. "I think you guys have kind of figured out how we do things. We're going to try, if there are issues, we're going to let the team know first," Pat Fitzgerald has already said.
"[Mark] addressed the team the night before (the suspension was announced). He was excellent. He owned it. He really challenged the team. Number one, he challenged the defense. He was going to be the best scout back in the country the next few weeks. Then he talked about the guys just doing the best they can, to be their best. Just challenged the team to make great choices and look after each other. He owned it, and I think that's what it's all about. You take responsibility for your actions. Guys'll occasionally make a mistake and if they own it, they have a chance to get better from it and so does the rest of the team."
"All mistakes can be avoided if you really look at it. But it wasn't avoided," Mark himself is now saying. "So I'm going to embrace it. There's no point in me pouting. Does it hurt? Yeah. It hurts really bad. But at the end of the day, it is what it is."
Neither Mark nor any other will here reveal just what rule he violated. But he was informed of his transgression back in June and then, after an appeal was heard, he learned in late July that his suspension was upheld. It was, he will say of that moment, "Shocking. I'm really disappointed I have to do that. I was sitting out a year (as an injury redshirt) and I was looking forward to coming back. But I'm going to embrace this. My teammates have given me great support. And I'm just doing what I can to make sure the other guys are ready. Now that I'm down, yeah, we're going to take a hit in September. But I fully expect us to be 2-0 by the time I get back. If we handle this right, we should be ready to roll."
And how did he feel when he was told his suspension was upheld?
"I was really emotional because, as I stated, I've been away a long time," Mark finally says. "I'm really eager to get back on the field. I just want to play ball for Northwestern with my teammates before leaving. I see this as a minor setback. But it's not the end of my career and this is a chance for the other guys to get a great opportunity."
THE OTHER GUYS: All through camp Fitzgerald has extolled his team's running back depth, which will now be tested in Mark's absence. His natural successor appears to be senior Treyvon Green, who last season rolled up 129 yards against Cal and 149 yards against Nebraska on his way to leading the `Cats in rushing with 736 yards on 137 carries (5.4 ypc). "Steady. Steady as she goes," running backs coach Matt MacPherson says of him. "He played some of his best football last year when he was healthy. He had maybe the best season in spring that he's had since he's been here, and he's been steady as he goes for the last year. Sometimes it makes it easy because you don't have to worry-- there's nothing negative about him. He's doing the right thing all the time."
Does Mark absence change what he's doing, Green himself is later asked.
"Not at all," he says. "I just have the same approach that I did last year. If somebody goes down, I've got to be ready. That's what Coach Mac has taught us and that's what we've been doing."
Behind him is true sophomore Warren Long, who averaged eight yards per-carry in limited action last season, and redshirt freshman Stephen Buckley, who went for 99 yards on 17 carries against Iowa last season before going down the next week against Nebraska with a ripped up knee. "As soon as I got hit, my body kind of went into shock, so I reacted kind of frantically," he will say, thinking back to that moment in Lincoln. "I was on the field crying like a baby, honestly. Immediately after that, I knew something was seriously wrong."
Did he worry that he might never play again?
"That never really crossed my mind," he initially says, but then he pauses.
"Well," he then admits, "initially, when I got hit, yeah, I definitely thought this could be the end. But, by the grace of God, he's given me another chance to play the game."
He is coy when asked if he will indeed be ready to play in the `Cats Aug. 30 opener against Cal, saying only that "I'm just taking it day-by-day, getting ready for the season." That, in turn, makes him a wild card in this deck of running back depth, and the same can certainly be said of the last pair in it, true freshmen Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault. The former is 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds and out of Glenbard North, the latter is 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds and out of the D.C. area, and both have been lauded by Fitzgerald, who is characteristically stingy with his compliments for frosh. "I like `em. I like `em a lot," he says of them. "They're good players, good players. We'll see how it plays out. We have a couple weeks until the opener. But I like `em."
"I've been extremely pleased with the way they've picked up the offense," echoes MacPherson, their position coach. "We ask our running backs to do a lot of stuff in the run game, in the pass game, protection, and they've digested it all. It hasn't always been perfect. But they have a pretty good command of what we're trying to do."
So will they be rarities and play as true frosh?
"You'd always love to redshirt them all. They're going to be different players at 23 than they are at 18," MacPherson finally says. "But if they're going to go out and perform, if they're going to help us win, then we'll see what happens."
ALSO PENDING: Proverbial battles have long been the stuff of training camp. Here, beside the one going on at running back, are some others unfolding in Kenosha: At right tackle between Eric Olson and Jack Konopka. At wide receiver among a deep cast that includes Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Kyle Prater. And at defensive tackle among Chance Carter, C.J. Robbins and Greg Kuhar. Also gaining notice is true freshman Xavier Washington, a 6-foot-1, 235 pound defensive end from Cedar Hill high in Texas. "He's fundamentally sound, he's got a great motor, terrific football IQ, pretty darn good functional strength which is going to improve as he goes along, and he's picking up the system pretty well. He's a football player, now. I'm excited about him," Fitzgerald says of him. Finally there is the question of who will be the third linebacker aside Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo, where the time is now being split by former safety Jimmy Hall and Drew Smith. "Those guys are going to play a lot of football. They'll both play a lot. That's a little different," Fitzgerald says of this competition, where Hall is better against the pass and Smith is the same against the run. "So we'll see skill on offense, skill on defense. You're going to match situationally and play to guys' strengths."
AND FINALLY, FITZGERALD, when asked his favorite memories of Camp Kenosha: "As a player, leaving. Now, coming up. I can't wait to get up here. It's amazing how you're perspective changes."
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