Northwestern's Mark named to All-American team

963351.png

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)."

View from the Moon: Bears make statement in taking tight end while passing on defensive backs

View from the Moon: Bears make statement in taking tight end while passing on defensive backs

With their second pick in the 2017 draft, the Bears addressed offense and did it in a way that, when coupled with one of their main offseason moves, makes for some very interesting what-ifs for the upcoming season.

The choice at No. 45 was tight end Adam Shaheen, who at 6-foot-6 and 278 pounds becomes the second significant addition at the position following the signing of Dion Sims (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) to a three-year deal. In a sometimes over-specialized NFL, the Bears have brought in not one but two every-down tight ends.

“Yeah, that’s accurate,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “So it opens up a lot of possibilities for our offense.”

The acquisitions of Shaheen and Sims hold some intrigue, if only because of sheer bulk, because the inescapable conclusion with the commitments to big tight ends is that the Bears might be serious about running the football. They ran 28.4 percent of their 2016 plays in personnel packages of two or three tight ends or with a tight end and fullback.

Under coordinator Dowell Loggains the Bears ran the football just 39.3 percent of the time in 2016. Head coach John Fox and Loggains cite the Bears’ frequent need to play catch-up as the reason why, though in 12 of the 16 games the Bears were tied, led or were within seven points at halftime. In fairness to Fox and Loggains, the Bears in fact arguably did not have the physical firepower at tight end to sustain a smash-mouth base of operations.

That said, both Shaheen and Sims also have a fully formed receiver side to their games, which is where the bigger-picture interest lies. Shaheen had 122 receptions over his last two seasons at Ashland. Sims caught 36, 25 and 35 passes in his final three years with the Miami Dolphins. Both Shaheen and Sims were high school basketball standouts; Shaheen played a year of basketball at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown, while Sims was dual-recruited for football and basketball at Michigan State after finishing fourth in voting for Mr. Basketball in Michigan in 2009.

“I definitely think (the basketball stuff) helps,” Pace said. “Half the time, it’s like these tight ends are going up for a rebound and boxing out. And (Shaheen) definitely has it. When we talk about body control and catching radius, the ball is not always going to be on target. And Adam has the ability to do that. We confirmed that through the tape, and Frank (Smith, tight ends coach) was able to confirm it during the workout.”

Why not take a defensive back?

During the NFL owners meetings this spring, Pace said that the draft's depth of talented options was a factor in free-agency decisions as well as the draft. So his willingness to trade down in the second round of this draft was expected, given that it has been rated as one of the best-ever drafts for quality and depth at defensive back.

Of course, these were the same experts’ analyses that concluded that no quarterback would be drafted before the middle of the first round, when in reality three went in the first 12 picks after teams traded up, so ... oh, never mind.

The NFL collective seems to agree with the take on defensive backs: Of the 107 players selected through three completed rounds, 29 (27.1 percent) have been defensive backs (18 cornerbacks and 11 safeties). Meaning more than one-fourth of the 2017 draft picks have been defensive backs.

What wasn’t expected was Pace then making no move at either cornerback or safety even after the trade-down that recovered much of the draft capital expended to deal up to No. 2 for Mitch Trubisky. When the Bears’ pick at No. 45 came around, the Bears instead chose a smaller-college tight end.

First thoughts were that Pace agreed with thinking that said starter-grade corners in particular could be had as late as the fourth round — he reacquired a fourth-round pick in the trade with Arizona, giving him two (Nos. 117 and 119) — or that he had been outflanked by a sudden minor run on defensive backs. In the eight picks from No. 36 (the Bears’ original second-round slot) to No. 43, four defensive backs were snatched up, three of them safeties.

That clearly didn’t bother Pace, though the Bears ended Friday with a plan to take a revised look in the defensive back direction.

“Yeah, we’re going to have to kind of sort through it tonight and we’ll be here late tonight and early in the morning,” Pace said. “Kind of resetting our board and going through it again. We’re going to take best player available, and if it ends up being offensive players, that’s what it is.”

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

18217199_10154638694570679_853959586_n.jpg
USA TODAY

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

Championship moments rarely occur in the first round. With a playoff format that drags the postseason out for more than two months, with playoff series taking as long as two weeks, the second season feels like just that. It’s far too early to say what exactly Friday night in Chicago will mean for the top-seeded Celtics, but a sense of a team coming together under unfathomable circumstances may prove to be the turning point in a season that a week ago appeared hanging by a thread.

It happened in three parts.

On the floor the Celtics looked every bit the part of a 51-win team that edged out LeBron’s Cavs for the top spot in the East. Brad Stevens’ small-ball approach came full-circle as the Boston guards lived in the paint against the Bulls, kicking out to open shooters for 16 3-pointers that helped the Celtics put away the game (and series) midway through the third quarter.

Avery Bradley starred for a second consecutive night, tallying 23 points while making Jimmy Butler work for his, while eight different Celtics hit a 3-pointer and the team shot 49 percent. For the first time in the series the Celtics looked dominant, like a team poised to contend with the Cavaliers for supremacy in the East.

“It felt good to play Celtic basketball again,” Avery Bradley said. “We were all smiling, having fun, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. That’s how hard we worked this entire year, to play that type of basketball.”

Isaiah Thomas was naturally somber much of the series. The well-documented death of his 22-year-old sister put a damper on the series before it began, and the MVP candidate understandably chose not to address it on the few occassions he spoke with the media. But Thomas looked more like himself as the series went on. Not only did his numbers improve, he appeared more vocal after made baskets, laughed off trash talk from Bulls point guard Isaiah Canaan, and engineered the Celtics' offense to near-perfection.

His defining moment came late in the third quarter with the Celtics nearing a 30-point lead. After a hard foul he gathered his four teammates in a huddle near the baseline and shouted that the series for the Bulls was "a wrap for these m------------!" This was the same player who two weeks earlier was brought to tears prior to Game 1, and who will bury his sister on Saturday in Tacoma, Washington. Under unthinkable circumstances, Thomas averaged 23.0 points and 5.7 assists in 34.8 minutes in the series.

“I feel like he has grown,” Al Horford said. "And we all have in a way with all the adversity that has gone on. It could have easily gone the other way, but I feel like especially tonight when we got the game in hand, in control, we all just kept on repeating to stay focused to keep it going, keep pushing. We didn’t want to give them any life and we were a focused group and we were enjoying the moment.”

Thomas' journey won't get easier. He'll have another short turnaround to get ready for Sunday's second-round matchup against the Celtics. But like his teammates did in Games 3 and 4, when Thomas flew by himself to Chicago following his return home to Tacoma to mourn with his family, they'll have another opporuntity to grow closer. Brad Stevens kept an incredible perspective on the situation throughout the series, and applauded his team for doing the same while still fighting for wins.

"Bigger things than basketball happened, and that took precedent and it takes precdedent," he said. "I was really proud of our guys for how they treated each other, how they stood together, stuck together. And how nobody pointed fingers, they were just a great support for one another, especially Isaiah."

When Thomas does return, and when the Celtics gear up for their next postseason journey, expectations will have remained the same. Though the Wizards were one of the league's best teams in the second half, and with John Wall and Bradley Beal playing on another level, it'll take more performances like Friday night - both on the court and collectively staying together - for Boston to advance. A 2-0 hole against the Wizards will feel a whole lot different than it did against the Bulls.

That sort of letdown doesn't feel like it will happen again. Though no one would have wished such tragedy to force it, the Celtics came together at a critical moment and came out better for it. Their work isn't done, and they know it. But the way they were able to handle the adversity in Round 1, anything seems possible for Stevens, Thomas the top seed in the East.

"We just try to stay the course in the day-to-day. And if that results in us winning more games or winning in the playoffs, or whatever the case may be, there’s only one goal in the Boston," Stevens said. "Seventeen (NBA championship) banners above us. We don’t have a choice. We only shoot for one thing there."