Replacing a starting running back might seem like a pretty big deal. But if it was going to have to happen to any team, there might not have been one more equipped to handle such a loss as Northwestern.
Running back Venric Mark shocked everyone — teammates included — when he announced his decision to transfer on Wednesday night. And after observers pondered over the why of the news, the questions quickly became about what comes next.
Remember, the Wildcats have had to do this before. Mark missed nearly the entirety of last season due to injury. He appeared briefly in the team's season-opener at Cal before missing the next three games. He played well in the Big Ten opener against Ohio State but then went down again, this time for good, at the start of the team's next game at Wisconsin. So when it comes to life without Mark, Northwestern has been there.
And a stable of backs played well in his stead in 2013. Treyvon Green finished as the team's leading rusher, and Stephen Buckley showed flashes of brilliance, too. Both guys are back this season (though Buckley is recovering from his own serious injury), as is Warren Long, who head coach Pat Fitzgerald described as ready to break out before suffering an injury of his own. Then there's the pair of true freshmen: Glenbard North's Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault, a running back out of Maryland. Both have impressed in camp, and they're earning rave reviews.
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All in all, that returning experience and the exciting newcomers make Northwestern feel good, even if it means another year picking up the pieces from the sudden absence of Mark.
"I think the one thing we've been talking about all offseason is we've got a ton of depth," quarterback Trevor Siemian said Thursday. "A bunch of young running backs. The new guys, the freshmen, Solomon Vault, Justin Jackson. Treyvon's been playing well. ... So we've got depth. We've got guys that are going to step up, and really this is their opportunity and I'm really excited for them."
While Green, Long and Buckley are expected to play a big part, Mark's departure could mean even more time for Vault and Jackson. Though Fitzgerald said the plan was for them to play regardless of what happened Wednesday with Mark, math would figure to indicate an increased role thanks to the latest developments.
"We expected to play those guys anyway before this. We expected to play Solomon and Justin," Fitzgerald said. "So that's got nothing to do with this.
"That's always been my stance on freshmen: I'll play them if they're ready. I'd love to be able to play them all. That's what I tell them when I'm in their living rooms, 'You need to expect to play.' But sometimes they're not ready to go. Those guys are. We'll see how it progresses. We've got two weeks before the opener."
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The two freshmen have obviously made an impression on their coach, but that ability has spread to teammates, too.
"I've been really impressed all camp. They've been playing tremendous," safety Ibraheim Campbell said. "Some guys have not practiced as much, and obviously with Venric leaving things have changed. So they've had to step up, and I think they've done an excellent job of doing that."
The Wildcats knew they'd be without Mark for the first two games of the season due to suspension, but now his transfer will force Northwestern to adjust its rushing strategy for the entire season. The depth has them confident they can do it without missing too much of a beat. Whether that will be the case remains to be seen.