Fearless Mark flourishing for Wildcats

Northwestern junior running back Venric Mark has caught many observers by surprise, but not his teammates. The junior, while undersized, is playing a large role for the Wildcat offense.

Venric Mark is listed at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds – generously.

He's small, has lightning speed, and can outrun any defense.

That's the recipe for a speed back attacking the corners of the line, no? Well, not for Mark, who has no fear running the ball inside.

"That's just Venric," NU quarterback Kain Colter said. "He fears nothing and he's always out there trying to pick a fight and he's not going to back down from anybody."

Colter said Mark talks like he's a 240-pound running back – though according to Colter, Mark actually sits closer to 150 pounds.

"But that's good," Colter said. "That's something you need in your tailback, just fearless and if we need a yard or two, he's not scared to throw it up there and get it. So it's all part of his attitude and I wouldn't want it any other way."

For his part, Mark said he doesn't let people who talk about his size bother him, but rather that he finds it somewhat motivational.

"It's not my job to prove them wrong," he said after the Minnesota game Saturday, in which he ran for 182 yards and two touchdowns. "At the end of the day, I like that. I'm a little back so they say ‘Hey, we can knock him around' and I'm like ‘Hey, you can do so and I'm gonna play my game.'"

So far this season, his game has been rushing for 792 yards and eight touchdowns through the first seven contests. A big part of the Wildcats' 6-1 start, Mark is on pace for just over 1350 yards this season, and already has four 100-yard games.

Though a large part of that load is running inside, Mark said he feels "pretty healthy." He missed some time in the Boston College game due to injury, but said he gets "dinged up every now and then, but that just goes with playing running back, that's the nature of the game … My body feels great."

Colter said Mark's great play this season can be attributed to improvements the tailback has made mentally.

"I feel like that's where I've seen him make the biggest strides, is mentally," Colter said. "He's always had the physical attributions to go out and make the plays but he's becoming a big-time playmaker and becoming really consistent."

And as far as the offensive line goes, Brian Mulroe said Mark's great start this season pushes the line to play that much harder.

"We know whenever the ball's in his hands he could be scoring, so we're just striving to make that block downfield," he said. "We're really enjoying being the offense, he's having a really good time and it's just showing out there."

Mark hasn't been shy about praising the offensive line, saying the unit did a great job opening holes and surging to block linebackers against Minnesota. He singled out Mulroe for making a block on a linebacker that sprung Mark for his first score of the game.

"The o-line did a great job," Mark said. "The game plan was run the ball down their throat… I believe seven out of the first ten plays were all run plays so our goal was to come in here and mulch ‘em up."

Northwestern now faces a pivotal four-game stretch against Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State – all division rivals. And if the Wildcats want to come through that stretch of games with a Legends Division title within their grasp, they will need Mark to keep pace with what he's done so far this year.

Not that the players seem to think that's really a concern.

"He's someone," said Mulroe, "you could really go to battle with every single week and you want him on your side."

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