WildcatReport continues its position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Wildcats by looking at the running backs.
It's not very difficult to pick out what made the 2012 Northwestern Wildcats go: the run game. The passing attack tended to be inconsistent, but on the ground, the Cats were a force to be reckoned with, ranking 18th nationally with 221.2 yards per game.
This season shouldn't be much different. The Wildcats return their most important weapons from a season ago, and although quarterback Kain Colter racked up 894 yards of his own, Venric Mark should be the star of the show once again.
Mark was recently named to the Hornung Award watch list, which honors the most versatile player in the country, and with good reason. While he did most of his damage out of the backfield (1,366 yds, 12 TD, 6.0 ypc), he was also a first-team All-America punt returner and tacked on 104 receiving yards for good measure. It's safe to say he can do it all.
Still, he and Colter certainly don't have to do it alone. And while Mark's name is carved in stone as the starting tailback, it will be interesting to see how other roles emerge during the season in what is suddenly a crowded backfield.
Mike Trumpy did a solid job backing up Mark last season, coming back from an ACL tear to be a reliable option as a change-of-pace runner. Treyvon Green will be looking for a way to make an impact after his production slowed in his sophomore campaign. Redshirt freshman Malin Jones may get the opportunity to fill the big, short-yardage back role that once belonged to the graduated Tyris Jones. Plus, we have yet to see what fellow redshirt frosh Stephen Buckley can do as a small, quick scatback that could spell Mark on occasion.
And that doesn't even include incoming freshmen Warren Miles Long and Xavier Menifield, who will be trying to figure out their ways around campus as well as the playbook.
What we liked in 2012: Mark up the middle
As a return specialist, Mark can turn on the jets. That's why he was able to break free 12 times for a rush of over 20 yards last season. His raw speed would propel him right through the line and into the open field, where he was rarely caught. In fact, five of those runs ended up going for over 45 yards.
When Mark pulled off one of these spectacular scampers, it almost always came off an inside run play. Against Nebraska, a trap handoff allowed him to go right up the gut for an 80-yard touchdown. With his speed, he needs just a split-second to get through a hole in the line and then turn on the afterburners. That's how the speedster did a lot of his damage a year ago. If an offensive line with three new faces can find a way to gel this year, 2013 could feature much more of the same.
What we want more of in 2013: The option pitch
There were many times during last year's campaign when Colter and Mark would run the read-option. Their chemistry was great, and Colter was very patient in deciding whether to hand off or keep it.
Still, it might help to add a little variation. Utilizing the traditional option would allow Colter to get outside the pocket, and if he were to draw attention, he could toss it outside to Mark with space along the sideline. The Wildcats did not run it too many times last year, but when they did, it was often very successful. Against Indiana, a pitch toward the right sideline resulted in a 33-yard run, Mark's longest of the game.
Colter attracts a lot of attention with his running ability, which makes the option play lethal. If he's willing to take a few hits in order to free up Mark, running the pitch a little more often could be beneficial.
Northwestern will be successful at the running back position in 2013 if… the passing game is a larger threat.
Should Northwestern further develop a deep-ball threat and a consistent short yardage passing attack, opponents are less likely to crowd the box in hopes of stopping the explosive Mark.
If Northwestern quarterbacks are accurate and productive enough through the air to keep opposing defenses honest, running lanes should open up for Mark and Trumpy. Should the passing attack fail, however, the Wildcat offense may become stagnant.
The Bottom Line: The Northwestern offense may be more balanced in 2013.
Last season, Trevor Siemian was learning as the season went on, and Colter, too, was just starting to get a handle on the passing game after spending 2011 as a runner. With another offseason under their belts, both should be ready to have a bigger impact through the air.
Mark and Co. will certainly play an important role, but last season showed that when the quarterbacks were rolling, offensive coordinator Mick McCall tended to keep throwing the ball. If Mark's production slows down a bit this season, it's not because he declined, but rather the quarterbacks improved.
Next up: Wide receiver