There’s been a theme to Pat Fitzgerald’s offseason responses when asked about the return of Venric Mark.
They usually end with him talking about someone else.
Fitzgerald and the Wildcats are obviously excited to get Mark back this season after the running back missed practically all of last season due to injury. And who wouldn’t be excited? Mark was an All-American just two years ago as a return man, and his big-play ability makes the running game exponentially more deadly.
But Fitzgerald & Co. are also excited about the guys on the depth chart behind Mark. He and everyone else got to see a lot of those guys last season when Mark was hurt, and he’s excited about how they can get even better in backup roles this season.
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That includes Treyvon Green, who ended the season as the Cats’ leading rusher with 736 yards and eight touchdowns. If you’re wondering why those numbers aren’t gaudier, it’s because he also dealt with injuries. As did the next two guys behind him: Warren Long and Stephen Buckley. It was a banged-up group. But at full strength this season, there are big expectations for all of them.
“I feel like this is one of the best running back groups that we’ve had at Northwestern,” Mark said Thursday during Northwestern football’s media day. “I feel like Treyvon Green stepped up last year with his play, I think it speaks for itself. … Warren Long, who played as a true freshman, I feel like he got his feet wet a little bit and this year he’s ready to step into that role. The other two guys that are coming in as freshmen, we don’t know what they can do yet. They’re just starting camp right now. And then we have myself. I’ve been away from the game for a while, so I have something to prove when I get back. But I think as a whole, we’re ready to go, and we just piggyback off each other.”
“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. “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.
“We expect those three guys to shoulder a pretty heavy load complimenting and being in competition with Venric.”
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That presents the question: How are all these guys going to share the ball?
Mark is obviously the primary weapon in the backfield. And he should see a little bit more regular running back action now that run-oriented quarterback Kain Colter has moved on and been fully replaced by pass-oriented Trevor Siemian. But one of the things Northwestern loves about Mark is his versatility. Certainly he’s a top-notch factor in the return game, and he boasted about his ability as a receiver Thursday, too. That versatility could open up more carries for the rest of the backs.
“It’s always been about the number of touches, especially a guy like Venric. And that includes kicking-game touches,” offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. “We’ve got to get Venric the ball. He’s a dynamic player, so we’ve got to get him the football. But there’s some other guys that we’ve got to get the ball, too, that can share the wealth a little bit. And that’s a nice problem to have.”
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And don’t forget about the two true freshmen, who Fitzgerald and Mark were also hyping on Thursday. Justin Jackson, a Schaumburg alum, and Solomon Vault, from Maryland, both got rave reviews from their new head coach.
“After two days, I like Justin Jackson a lot. He’s as advertised from high school. And same thing with Solomon Vault,” Fitzgerald said. “You see a lot of similarities in Solomon with Venric, except Solomon’s 191, 192 pounds. I think Venric dreams of that. I like that young group.”
So there’s a reason Fitzgerald has been talking up the team’s depth at running back this summer. It’s a crowded position, for sure, but as McCall said, it’s a problem Northwestern is happy to have.