Venric Mark, playing padless in just a helmet and mesh jersey, took a carry outside and up the field Monday. It was one of at least 100 scrimmage reps, and it was one of NU’s most reassuring moments of the entire offseason.
No. 5 is still a full month away from making those runs mean anything, but a team so desperate to regain the momentum from 2012 could likely already picture the ensuing touchdown celebration.
“It feels like I’m starting high school again,” Mark admitted after the Wildcats’ first day of training camp. “There’s butterflies. I really feel like I’ve been away from the game for a very long time.”
He has been. Mark technically played as recently as last October in Wisconsin, but is more than 18 months removed from his last complete game, the 56-yard, one-touchdown effort in the Gator Bowl. At one point in 2012, Mark busted off runs of 48, 80, 72 and 30 yards in four consecutive weeks. Just one of those against Cal on Opening Night will be enough to erase the warranted pessimism and make the stagnant Wildcat offense look like a completely new unit.
“Two years ago, almost every time he touched the ball, something was going to happen,” Pat Fitzgerald said. “He’s explosive, and he hasn’t been touched all year.”
When Mark’s return becomes more official at the end of this month, we won’t be looking for a consistent five yard-per-carry night. Albeit unfair, we’ll be expecting that one game-changing gallop, reminiscent of the ones that blew the hinges off games and opened leads against ‘12 opponents like Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota. That, more than anything else, will make The Season From Hell feel finally behind us. Mark can labor through 20 carries for 50 yards against Cal or Northern Illinois, but if the 21st goes for another 50, fans will likely be calling for another All-American nod, and more importantly, the once-lifeless offense will have some punch to it.
The ability to find holes and read seams doesn’t change when your body is knocked out of commission. The ability to juke and sprint past 11 men might. Mark isn’t concerned about that right now.
“I’m not even tired right now. I feel like I can go run a conditioning test,” he said Monday after practice.
Trite as it sounds, seeing Mark’s confidence in tact is the first sign of a full return. An undersized running back like Mark thrives off swagger, and every player I’ve ever interviewed has a story about Venric being Venric, about the goofy but confident back that talks far louder than his 5-8 frame would suggest.
Mark acknowledged Monday that he still has to prove himself to those that haven’t seen him run in a year and a half. With that swagger back and a few more runs like Monday’s under him, the task could prove to be far easier than expected.
“I trust my body now,” he said. “I definitely use last year as motivation. It wasn’t in my plans, but now I have to come back with a certain energy.”