Northwestern's Mark named to All-American team

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Northwestern's Mark named to All-American team

Venric Mark is now among Northwestern football's all-time elite.

The speedy Wildcat junior was named an All-American punt returner by the Football Writers Association of America on Friday.

His name now joins 37 other Wildcat All-Americans lining the upper deck at Ryan Field.

"I was really stoked once I heard the news," said Mark following an indoor practice session as Northwestern continued preparation for the Jan. 1 TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. "I kind of put my phone down, sat there for a little bit and called my mom and let her know. She was excited too."

Mark is the 39th all-time Northwestern's football All-American and first since offensive lineman Zach Strief in 2005. He's also the lone representative from the Big Ten on the FWAA's 69th annual team.

Then again, when it came to punt returns, there were none better around the nation this season.

Mark averaged 20.1 yards per return and ranked No. 1 in the nation, nearly four yards better than his closest competitor.

Mark was also the first Northwestern player since 1949 to collect two punt return touchdowns in a season. He had an 82-yard return against Syracuse and a 75-yard score at Penn State.

"I was really excited," he said. "It says a lot. I feel like I haven't got to this point by myself. I have to give a lot of praise to my teammates...(and) it'll be a pretty good legacy for my family to come up to the school and see my name on the field."

Just what makes Mark a great punt return specialist?

"I would say vision and trusting my teammates," he said. "It's (also) being very decisive. You ask anybody in the league or anybody in college who's an elite returner and they'll tell you the same thing."

Wildcat coach Pat Fitzgerald may be quick to dismiss the explosion of college football awards, but not this one.

"It's very deserving," said Fitzgerald, the school's only two-time All-American as a standout defensive player in the mid-1990s. "This one's credible, it's legit compared to some of the other All-American teams. This one counts."

Mark also earned second team all-Big Ten honors as a running back after he rushed for 1,310 yards and scored 12 touchdowns (11 rushing). Fitzgerald said he felt Mark was the league's best in the backfield and deserved better.

He averaged 171 all purpose yards per game, good for ninth in the country. Mark needs 148 yards to break Damien Anderson's all-time Northwestern record of 2,195 yards set in 2000.

Mark also landed first team punt return honors from The Sporting News and CBSSports.com.

"I'm really proud of what he's accomplished here in his three years," Fitzgerald added. "He's a true junior and -- as I said to the team -- on those long punt returns those 10 guys up front blocking for him did a terrific job.

"But he's the one that went out and made the play and it would be fun if he went out and played that way on the first, which he should."

The school said Mark suffered an "upper extremity" injury in November against Michigan, but time off since the Nov. 18 season finale with Illinois has helped him regain full health.

"Right now I feel really good," he said. "I almost feel 100 percent. The coaches do a great job, Coach Fitz does a great job of making sure we're healthy but making sure we're paying attention to detail and staying sharp but also taking care of our bodies."

Northwestern (9-3) meets Mississippi State (8-4) at 11 a.m. (Central) on Jan. 1 at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., home of the NFL Jaguars.

Training for that game turned more serious on Saturday as Fitzgerald worked on the game plan against their Southeastern Conference foe.

"Today was really game plan day," he said. "We've put some things in the other practice when the varsity went at it. But today would be like Tuesday of game week-type practice ... We'll have everything in by the time the guys go home (for the holiday)."

Wake-up Call: Cubs surge into first place; White Sox continue slide

Wake-up Call: Cubs surge into first place; White Sox continue slide

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Willson Contreras is playing his butt off right now for first-place Cubs

Willson Contreras is playing his butt off right now for first-place Cubs

This really is becoming Willson Contreras' team.

The dude is absolutely on fire right now and has almost singlehandedly lifted the Cubs back into first place.

Since the All-Star Break, Contreras has crushed four homers and three doubles while driving in 11 runs in just eight games. 

The Cubs have won seven of those games, including Sunday night when Contreras' two-run shot in the sixth inning turned out to be the game-winner that pushed the Cubs into a first-place tie with the Milwaukee Brewers. (The Cubs also won the only game Contreras hasn't started since the Break.)

In the span of nine games, the Cubs have already erased the 5.5 game deficit they had in the National League Central entering the midseason break.

"He's just playing his butt off, literally, right now," Joe Maddon said. "Everything he's doing is pretty darn good. He plays with enthusiasm, also. You gotta feel that in the stands.

"There's some times he might get over-enthusiastic. I prefer toning people down as opposed to pumping them up all the time. He's doing everything. He's hitting fourth, he's catching, he's handling a really good pitching staff, he's throwing people out, he's blocking the ball really well and he's hitting homers, so God bless him."

Contreras' offense has been amazing, but Maddon credits the young catcher's block on a Wade Davis pitch in the dirt last week in Atlanta with helping to save the season. That play helped ensure a victory by not permitting the tying run to score from third base as the Cubs rattled off six straight wins to start the second half of 2017.

It's at the point now where Maddon cannot rationally find ways to get Contreras out of the lineup, even though the veteran manager is a huge proponent of rest and wants nothing more than to keep his players healthy and playing at a high level late in the season and into the playoffs.

Contreras is like the Energizer Bunny out there, hopping all around behind the plate to block balls, throwing guys out, pumping his chest, screaming obscenities at his first base coach after home runs. He even plays long toss (from the warning track in left-centerfield to about the spot the second baseman normally plays) before games with catching coach Mike Borzello.

The 25-year-old just does not turn down for anything when he's at the ballpark.

So does he ever get weary?

"I do get tired, but when I get home," he said. "When I'm here, I'm never tired. This is my job, this is what I love and you're gonna see me like that all throughout my career."

Contreras credits the Cubs coaching staff with helping him make the mental adjustments that has him in the conversation as one of the best catchers in baseball.

"He's growing up," Anthony Rizzo said. "He's really taking control behind the plate, which is nice. His at-bats just keep getting better and better and it's really fun to watch."

Contreras is on pace for 25 homers and 87 RBI, second only to Kansas City's Salvador Perez in both categories among catchers.

"He definitely has the abilities to be one of the elite catchers," Maddon said. "You gotta consider him one of the elite catchers in the National League already. Because he just does everything so well.

"The biggest next hurdle is just — without pulling him in too much — controlling his emotions a tad more without losing that enthusiasm that he has. Really understanding the game and calling the game and working his pitchers. 

"Mike Borzello does a great job with him. He started out this year and wasn't so good — missing his pitches, missing fastballs, fouling stuff off. But he stayed with it and now you see what he's capable of doing. He is really good right now and he's gonna get better."