Northwestern's offense was missing something last season. And it wasn't really hard to figure out what that was.
After averaging 31.7 points and 395.8 yards per game (third and sixth in the Big Ten, respectively) in a 2012 season that saw them win 10 games, the Wildcats averaged 26.2 points (10th in the conference) during last season's disappointing five-win campaign.
What was missing was an All-American.
Running back Venric Mark was primed for big things in his senior season, but injuries meant he played in really only one full game. He only appeared in three.
But now Mark is getting a second shot at senior year. Northwestern started practice Monday, and Mark was back on the field and really happy to be there.
"It felt great. It feels real good just to be back," Mark said. "I feel like I'm starting high school again, little butterflies. But I'm glad to be back on my team.
"When you first go to high school from middle school, you have to meet new people. And I really feel like that. I've been away from the game for a very long time, and this is the game I love. So being back out there for the first time, it just felt really great."
Going out shortly into the team's season-opener against Cal, Mark sat out the remainder of the non-conference slate before returning with a solid performance in the team's loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten opener. But Mark was hurt again at the start of the following game against Wisconsin, knocking him out for the rest of the year. It's something he's using as drive heading into 2014.
"I definitely use it as motivation. It was not in my plans," Mark said. "But as we all know, our plans don't always follow through. So I knew that I had to bounce back, and I have to come back with a certain urgency and energy to help lead this team. And that's what I plan on doing."
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And though the return is special for Mark, it's perhaps even bigger for Northwestern, which welcomes back a playmaker impactful enough to earn All-America honors as a return man in 2012.
"He's explosive," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He's a young man that two years ago, arguably, in this league every time he touched the ball something was gonna happen, something positive for us most of the time. Not only as a running back but also when we were able to get him out in space and showcase his ability to catch the ball, run routes. Good skill, good skill guy. And then as a kick and punt returner, he was as dynamic as there was in the country, his name's on the stadium because of that. Just to get him back is great."
"He's got his energy back, I think he's got his confidence back underneath him," superback Dan Vitale said. "I'm ready for him to just hit the ground running again, which is what he does best."
Mark doesn't return with the same expectations outside the Northwestern locker room, which Fitzgerald attributed to him being "out of sight, out of mind" at last week's Big Ten Media Day. But Mark and his teammates have the same high hopes they did heading into last season. It closely mirrors the team as a whole, which was looking to reach the Big Ten title game before last season's slide. This season, the expectations are cranked back up. For the Cats and for Mark.
"I wasn't satisfied with last year. It really took a toll on me," Mark said. "And knowing that I had an opportunity to come back with this team, with Trevor (Siemian) being a captain, with the amazing defense that we had last year that I think played very well, I felt it was not only good for myself but Northwestern as a whole to come back and help this team to a Big Ten championship."