Venric Mark can’t wait to get back into a football game.
Now his wait will be a little longer.
After missing nearly the entirety of last season due to injury, Northwestern unexpectedly announced a two-game suspension for the senior running back on Friday night. Mark, who violated an unspecified team policy, will miss the Wildcats’ first two games of the year against California and Northern Illinois.
The loss is obviously a surprising one, but how much effect will it have on Northwestern’s season?
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The first thing to consider, of course, is that two games is not the end of the world. Yes, Mark is a crucial cog in the Cats’ offensive machine, and his absence last season was part of the reason the offense failed to find its footing throughout a disappointing five-win campaign. But missing two games means there are still 10 games in which to make a difference. Neither of the games he’ll miss come in the conference season, when the Cats truly strive for their goal of winning a Big Ten title.
Want some reassurance? Just look to last season, when Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde was suspended for the first three games of the Buckeyes’ schedule. He returned to run all over the Big Ten, and he was awarded the conference’s Running Back of the Year award at season’s end.
Then there’s the group behind Mark on the depth chart, which head coach Pat Fitzgerald has raved about all offseason. Guys like Treyvon Green, Warren Long and Stephen Buckley got a good deal of experience last season in Mark’s absence (while battling injury issues of their own), and now they can put that to good use here in the first two games. Expected to prepare to carry a big load anyway, now they’ll have the majority of training camp to prepare for the opener against the Golden Bears, where they'll have any even bigger role. It’ll provide the opportunity to get ready, unlike last season, when that sudden injury threw those guys into the fire.
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But even with that heaping helping of caution taken, one can’t help but think Mark’s absence could again cause problems for the Northwestern offense. Mark is one heck of a talent, enough so that he was named an All American in 2012 as a return man. Coming back from injury this season, he is primed to make a big impact in the run game, as a receiver in the pass game and in the return game. Now that’s all put off another two weeks.
Individually, Mark has discussed how much sitting out last season took its toll. When the season starts, he’ll be sitting out again.
“The journey was tough,” Mark said Thursday during the team’s media day in Evanston, “but I have a good support system here at Northwestern that helped me get through it. I’ve never been hurt like that, that sidelined me for a whole entire season. Even throughout high school, I managed to stay healthy. Through my first four, three and a half years, I managed to stay healthy. It had a toll on me mentally, of course physically. But with the help of the O-line, Trevor (Siemian, quarterback), the receivers, everyone around me, my coaches, I felt like I had a good support system. I was able to come back in a good timely fashion. I’m feeling healthy right now, and I think I’m ready to go.”
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Healthy or not, Mark will miss the first two games of the season.
“I made a mistake and am prepared to deal with the consequences of that,” Mark said in a statement released through Northwestern following his suspension Friday night. “There’s no one that holds me to a higher standard than the one I hold myself to, so nobody is more disappointed than I am. First and foremost, I feel like I let my teammates down, and that feels the worst. I’m grateful to have another season to compete with this team. My focus moving forward is on working as hard as I can in camp and supporting my teammates in practice and on gamedays so that we can achieve our goals this season.”