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)."

White Sox Talk Podcast: Jose Quintana trade rumors and SoxFest preview

White Sox Talk Podcast: Jose Quintana trade rumors and SoxFest preview

When will a possible Jose Quintana trade go from a watch to a warning?

Chuck Garfien, Dan Hayes, Ryan McGuffey and Chris Kamka break down the Quintana trade talks and what it will be like for him this weekend at SoxFest after months of trade rumors.

The guys also discuss what the White Sox roster might look like on Opening Day, and Hayes reveals his 2016 Hall of Fame ballot.

[SHOP WHITE SOX: Get your White Sox gear right here]

Plus listen for a special White Sox Talk Podcast giveaway: two free passes to SoxFest and the chance to play bags with Garfien and Todd Frazier at SoxFest.

Check out the latest episode below:

For Tom Rees, coaching gig at Notre Dame always seemed like an inevitability

For Tom Rees, coaching gig at Notre Dame always seemed like an inevitability

The last time Tom Rees played a game for Notre Dame, he was still known as Tommy Rees — but his coach put forth an offer that didn't come as a surprise to anyone in the press room at Yankee Stadium. 

"I'm a Tommy Rees fan for life," Kelly said after Notre Dame's 2013 Pinstripe Bowl win over Rutgers. "… He'll keep trying to play the game as long as he can. But I told him, he's got a bright future as a graduate assistant for Brian Kelly anytime."

Rees is joining Notre Dame as a full-time quarterbacks coach, not just as a coach-in-training graduate assistant role. The 24-year-old — whose father, Bill, has held a number of scouting roles in the NFL — only has two coaching stops on his resume, a graduate assistant role at Northwestern in 2015 and an offensive assistant job with the San Diego Chargers last year. But his lack of experience is more than made up for by the simple fact that, while at Notre Dame from 2010-2013, there was a well-established belief held by coaches and teammates that one day the Lake Bluff, Ill. native one day would coach in some capacity. 

"I'm very excited to have Tom join our staff," Kelly said in a statement Tuesday. "He possesses an understanding of the game, and most importantly the quarterback position, that's unique. He's a true student of the game and great communicator that will offer immediate dividends toward guiding our quarterback room.

"As a former quarterback at Notre Dame, Tom also has a rare ability to truly relate with the quarterbacks on our roster. He's literally sat in their seat, dealt with the ups and downs, faced the criticism, deflected the praise, and all that comes with playing the position at Notre Dame. He can genuinely mentor them — not only on the football field, but in the classroom and the community as well."

Rees effectively became a player/coach in 2012, when a July arrest for resisting law enforcement and illegal consumption of alcohol by a minor led to a one-game suspension that knocked him out of what was a four-person competition to be the team's starting quarterback. Everett Golson ultimately emerged from that fray, but Rees was a fixture as both a mentor to and a replacement for the redshirt freshman as the Irish rolled to the BCS Championship with an undefeated regular season record. 

Consider what Rees said about his relationship with Golson prior to the 2013 BCS Championship:

"There'd be a couple late night discussions," Rees said. "He'd ask me what I thought he needed to improve on, you know, don't hold anything back. And I told him the truth sometimes -- I told him the truth all the time, sometimes it wasn't what he wanted to hear. But any way I could help, and I've had a lot of fun working with him."

Rees' playing time that year was important, yet sporadic. So during the week and from the sidelines, he took more of a coach's point of view with the Irish offense, which teammates said was beneficial when he took over the starting job again in 2013 follow Golson's academic suspension. 

"Not being a stating quarterback, it's sort of pushed him to become more of a leader and more of a coach," former offensive lineman Chris Watt said before the 2013 season. "I think that helped him see the game a little bit differently than before." 

Rees will be primarily tasked with grooming redshirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush, a guy who some around the program thought was the most talented quarterback on Notre Dame's roster the last few years. Of course, Wimbush's offensive knowledge wasn't near the level possessed by Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer, but his throwing and running ability are both mouth-watering traits that Rees will have a chance to mold.

That Rees is getting his coaching start in his mid-20's isn't particularly surprising. In many ways, has always been on track for this role, and maybe more (think offensive coordinator).

"When I finished my playing career and graduated from Notre Dame, I wanted to do two things," Rees said Tuesday. "First, I wanted to coach, and second, at some point in my career I hoped to get an opportunity to return and do it at my alma mater. I didn't know when or if this opportunity might present itself, but I'm so grateful and honored that it did. I'm ready to get things rolling with this great staff and group of student-athletes."