As nights in August go, Wednesday has to rank as one of the worst for Northwestern in recent memory.
The Wildcats received two pieces of horrible news, with Venric Mark deciding to transfer and Christian Jones lost for the season with a knee injury.
Mark was the running back coming back from a 2013 season lost to injury, ready to re-energize the Northwestern offense with the electrifying skills that made him an All-American return man in 2012. After a season where the Cats stumbled to a 5-7 finish, there was perhaps no bigger sign of hope for 2014 than Mark, one of many returning players looking to bounce back from last year's string of near misses.
Jones was another, a wide receiver who figured to be Trevor Siemian's favorite target after he lit up the Illini defense in last year's season finale, Northwestern's lone Big Ten victory. Jones caught 13 passes in that game, two of which went for touchdowns, and made fans and observers excited for his next appearance on the field.
[MORE BIG TEN: Northwestern running back Venric Mark to transfer]
Now both offensive weapons are gone, and they won't return this season. Mark won’t return at all.
But instead of getting down, the Wildcats will likely handle this like they’ve handled all the other adversity this offseason. The unionization attempt that threatened to tear the team apart appears to have worked better as a team-building exercise. Leaders like Siemian have emerged. And it wouldn’t be shocking to see the team exhibit the same kind of composure in the face of this latest blow.
But that will involve some players stepping up. Big time.
If there’s a bit of a silver lining, it’s that Northwestern has been through losing Mark before. That happened just last season, and all offseason head coach Pat Fitzgerald and others — Mark included — have hyped up how deep the team is at running back. Treyvon Green, who led the team in rushing a season ago with 736 yards, will now become the Cats’ No. 1 running back. But he’ll have help. Stephen Buckley — coming off a serious injury of his own — could potentially miss the start of the season but should be able to provide Green with plenty of backup. Same goes for Warren Long and a pair of true freshmen in Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault.
[MORE BIG TEN: Northwestern wideout Christian Jones out for season with injury]
Fitzgerald said at the team’s media day last week that he expected the group behind Mark to “shoulder a heavy load.” With Mark’s surprise transfer, that statement becomes more true than it was just a week ago.
“You look at last year through V’s injury what we saw happen. I was really, really pleased with a number of guys,” Fitzgerald said last week. “I thought Treyvon Green stepped up. He wasn’t healthy the whole year, especially midway through and toward the end of the season, but I thought he really battled through and had a great start. Warren Long was poised and ready to take the next step and got a hamstring (injury) right as his opportunity presented itself when Stephen Buckley went down. And I thought up until Buck’s injury, I though he was coming into his own. So those three guys got kind of the lion’s share of the experience coming back.”
In the receiving corps, it’ll be another team effort to fill the void left by Jones. Last year’s leading receiver Tony Jones plus Cameron Dickerson, Kyle Prater and Miles Shuler will all have plenty of balls sent their way from Siemian. And of course don’t forget superback Dan Vitale, the quasi-tight end who ranked third on the team in receiving last season with 382 yards and three touchdown catches.
Siemian will be the key player here. In addition to needing to show solely the ability to maintain a successful passing attack without a guy who could've been his top target, he'll need to show the leadership that's been talked about so much this summer to make sure his offense can move on the best it can from what happened Wednesday.
It was certainly a shocking Wednesday night. But those considering the Cats’ season torpedoed because of the loss of two offensive playmakers should think twice. Perhaps the benefit of plenty of bad luck in 2013 was that experience can be found just about everywhere, and that includes up and down the depth chart at running back and wide receiver. For example, Green has had worlds more carries in the past 12 months than Mark.
Obviously, these two guys are great talents, but there’s plenty more to be excited about on this team from what should be a strong defense to an experienced offensive line to the team’s high hopes for Siemian. Mark’s departure and Jones' injury might downgrade Northwestern a bit, but they certainly don’t warrant writing the Cats off completely.
Stick around. This season is still going to be plenty interesting.