- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Our Big Ten player rankings, which are based on last year's performance only, roll on today. From now on, every player named will have one of those coveted single digits next to his name.
Next up is a guy who didn't exactly come out of nowhere but certainly one who exceeded all reasonable preseason expectations to become an All-American ...
No. 9: Venric Mark, RB/KR, Northwestern, junior, 5-foot-8, 175 pounds
Preseason rank: Not ranked
2012 numbers: Carried 226 times for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns. Caught 20 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown. Averaged 19.8 yards on 21 kickoff returns and 18.7 yards on 15 punt returns, with two punts returned for scores.
Why he's here: Before 2012, Mark was known as a speedy return man and not much else. He had rushed for a total of 167 yards his first two seasons, and he didn't appear to have the size to be effective as an every-down back.
That's why Mark's junior season was so surprising. He proved himself as a tailback, all right, in compiling Northwestern's first 1,000-yard rushing season since Tyrell Sutton in 2006. His diminutive frame was not a problem, as defenses had trouble catching up with him long enough to deliver a hit. He put up eight 100-yard rushing days, including 182 at Minnesota and 162 against Iowa.
While doing all that, Mark remained as dangerous a return man as the Big Ten had to offer. He needed one more punt return to qualify among the national leaders, but he would have finished second in the FBS on punt return average if he had. He conjured up punt return touchdowns of 75 and 82 yards, becoming just the second Wildcat ever to score on two punt returns in the same season. The FWAA named him its first-team All-America punt returner, and he led the Big Ten in all-purpose yards with 2,166.
So, yeah, Mark is more than just a speedy return man. A whole lot more.