Mark providing boost on offense

Venric Mark's move to running back was figured to be an experiment initially. Two games into the season, the junior speedster has been Northwestern's most valuable player on offense. Needless to say, Mark is excelling in his new, comfortable role.

There is no getting around the truth: Venric Mark has been Northwestern's MVP so far this season. Through two games, the do-it-all junior has amassed 205 rushing yards, 30 receiving yards and 204 kick and punt return yards.

Mark has provided a jolt of versatility for a pass-oriented offense that sorely lacked a dynamic runner. Without his presence in the backfield, his jittery quickness threatening to break through for big plays every time he touches the ball, there's no telling how NU would have fared against Syracuse and Vanderbilt.

Perhaps he saw this coming, or maybe this all-purpose offensive explosion was more unexpected. What's clear is that with Mark making plays out of the backfield and in the return game, the Wildcats' offense is more potent than it has been in quite some time.

It was hardly surprising to see Mark return a punt for a touchdown against Syracuse. After all, that's what he does best. Cutting, spinning, juking, diving, Mark is a master escape artist, and he's proven as much over the past two years in the return game.

But there remained a sneaking suspicion that Mark was what he was: a return specialist, that his unique skill set would never translate to the offensive side of the ball. For all Mark's tantalizing athleticism and open-field big-play ability, he had never managed to make a discernible impact on offense – even during the second half of last season, when he switched to running back.

The prevailing belief entering this season was that Mark would ply his trade on special teams, with an occasional spurt of creativity on offense. Mark's slight frame and poor offensive track record dictated a limited offensive repertoire. Screens, end-arounds, trick plays, maybe the occasional option set. Such was the realm of functionality for a player of his size and stature.

Not only has Mark exceeded those expectations, he's emerged as an integral centerpiece on offense, an irreplaceable playmaking force that changes the range of possibilities coordinator Mick McCall can throw at opposing defenses. When the passing game stagnates, NU can adjust with a mixture of designed quarterback/ pitch-option runs, shotgun handoffs and other lateral tosses to get Mark in space.

With Kain Colter under center, NU's offense becomes a self-sustaining, two-man wrecking crew. The two multitalented skill players work in cohorts out of the backfield, seeking different ways to find creases in the defense and pick up yards on the ground. It's not quite a full-fledged option system, but a unique rushing attack, one predicated on Mark's elusiveness and versatility.

The receivers and the passing game have long stood as the cornerstones of McCall's spread offense. And there's no reason to stray from that schematic focus; the Wildcats are a passing team. But with Mark playing the way he is, NU has balance, and that makes its offense even tougher to stop.

Asked about his performance against Vanderbilt Saturday night, Mark – who finished with 24 carries for 123 yards and a touchdown, plus a highlight-worthy receiving touchdown retroactively nullified after a replay revealed he stepped out of bounds – acknowledged the strides he's made on offense, but realizes NU has work yet ahead.

"I'm glad that I have a bigger role, but we haven't reached our destination yet," Mark said after his second consecutive game-changing performance. "We're only two games in and we need to finish out."

At this early stage in the season, there's no telling where Mark (or this offense) will be when NU reaches the meat of its schedule, that dreaded Nebraska-Michigan-Michigan State stretch that looms ever-closer with each passing week.

NU has navigated the early portion of its nonconference schedule with headstrong determination, largely on the back of Mark's dazzling talents. The spark he's provided has steadied the offense to two encouraging showings against BCS conference teams.

It seems unreasonable to think Mark can maintain this torrid pace for an entire season, even if he continues to blossom over the next five weeks against manageable competition.

But for the time being, enjoy the birth of NU's newest offensive virtuoso, the unexpected star-turn for a player long regarded with a hint of skepticism for his purported limitations. Special teams is only one facet of his game; Mark is a playmaker, plain and simple.

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