CHICAGO-After a breakout season in which he rushed for 1,366 yards, second team All-Big Ten selection Venric Mark is healthy, motivated and eager to lead Northwestern to new heights.
But with quarterbacks Kain Colter, Trevor Siemian and nearly the entire receiving corps back as well this year, Mark might be hard pressed to match his success from a year ago.
Mark, though, is hardly bothered. He said Thursday at Big Ten Media Days that his mind is on the team, not his own production.
"That's a part of football," he said. "That's a part of scheming. Not everyone has the same defense, and we've got to pick and choose, offensively, what's best for us.
"We have a lot of weapons coming back offensively at receiver, and they're going to make a lot of great plays. That goes to the offensive coordinator and Coach Fitz on what they want to do."
Mark expects this year to get at least as many as the 226 carries he got last year. His 6.0 average yards per carry and 12 touchdowns last season show that he is deserving of at least that much.
Although it was his elusiveness that made him an All-American return man in 2012, the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Mark has worked tirelessly throughout the offseason to improve his leg strength. Fitzgerald has been impressed by Mark's work in the weight room and with his diet, and both should help his durability and his effectiveness when running the ball between the tackles.
Siemian and an improved Colter should make the Wildcats' aerial attack more productive than last year's 110th-ranked passing team, but Mark will still be an integral part of the offense.
Getting Mark enough touches isn't an issue for the Wildcats' coach -- giving him the ball at the right times is.
"[We can help him be productive] by giving him the right amount of touches," Fitzgerald said. "...We get him the ball in different ways, play to his strengths, try to get him matched up properly, and then just let him go have fun."
Northwestern tries to get Mark the ball in many ways, which is why he named to the Paul Hornung Award watch list for most versatile player in the country. Even so, he had just 20 receptions last season. With a solid passing game, he may be looked upon more this season to reprise his role as a slot receiver, where he played in both 2010 and 2011 before coaches asked him to make the switch to the backfield.
Fitzgerald said Mark catches the ball well, but he would not say if his role as a receiver is going to change. If the Cats want to show off their improved passing game while utilizing an explosive playmaker, a good option might be to target Mark more through the air.
We won't know for sure if that will be part of offensive coordinator Mick McCall's plan until the season opener against Cal. Mark certainly isn't giving any hints.
"Maybe it will, maybe it won't," Mark said. "Maybe I'll play more receiver, maybe I won't. That's just something that'll have to be showcased on August 31."