- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Venric Mark is having a good summer.
The Northwestern star has added strength to his 5-foot-8 frame. He's already been named to the preseason watch lists for the Maxwell and Paul Hornung awards. And on Sunday, he got hired by Acquirent, a consulting and outsourcing business based in Evanston, Ill. While Mark doesn't yet know what his exact role or hours will be with the company, he hopes to work there while juggling schoolwork and football duties.
It's a different kind of summer in many ways than the one Mark experienced last year. Back then, he was still known mostly as a speedy kick returner who'd played some receiver and could maybe offer a change of pace at running back. No one predicted he'd finish with 1,366 rushing yards or be named an All-America return specialist.
This summer, for really the first time, Mark must deal with the pressure of expectations. But it's something the senior says he welcomes.
"The pressure is there, and it's going to be there," he told ESPN.com. "You just have to do what you can do. Now that I've accomplished everything I've accomplished, I'm nowhere near satisfied. Myself and my team, we're all coming in with very high expectations."
Mark posted the sixth-highest single-season rushing total in Northwestern history, became the first Wildcat to eclipse 1,000 yards since 2006 and was just 29 yards shy of Damien Anderson's record for total offense with 2,166 yards. As for his goals in 2013?
"I just want to go above what I did last year," he said. "Not be complacent, not just obtain what I have already done but try to reach past that. I couldn't even tell you really what the school records are. But if they're over what I got last year, well, I plan on getting over what I got."
To do that, Mark will need to stay on the field and stay a little healthier than he was last year. While he managed to take 226 carries, averaging 17 per game, he got knocked out of several games early and was limited toward the end of the year with a shoulder injury. Durability concerns are always going to trail a guy his size.
"The number one thing is, he's got to continue to improve from standpoint of strength and size," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "His body weight is up, his strength numbers are up. He's now understanding what it takes day in, day out and how to manage his body."
Mark said he weighs 173 right now and aims to get to 180 by the time Northwestern reports to training camp next month. His conditioning program this summer has revolved around adding flexibility and explosion in the hips and adding mass by lifting heavier weights with shorter reps.
"It should allow me to dish out harder hits and to withstand harder hits throughout the season," he said.
Mark said he's also working on getting faster by refocusing on the running form and techniques he learned as a track star in high school. That must be a grim prospect for defenders who watched him fly by them on special teams last year. Mark averaged 18.7 yards per punt return with two touchdowns, which would have led the Big Ten and ranked No. 2 nationally had he gotten enough attempts to qualify.
While it's not easy to get 22 guys together to simulate punt returns during the summer, Mark said it's nonetheless an art he practices every day. Often, he'll catch punts with a couple of gunners and maybe a few blockers around during voluntary workouts.
"It requires a lot of work," he said. "It's not something you can just show up and do. Yes, it takes a lot of instinct, but you have to know how to track the ball while still running to a spot while still looking down and understanding when to fair catch and when not to fair catch. So these are the things I'm always working on."
Mark wants to go out with a big senior year and help Northwestern compete for a Big Ten title. He'll also want to show pro scouts that he's got what it takes to succeed at the next level despite his stature. That's a lot of pressure, and Fitzgerald doesn't want his star player worrying about it all.
"I want him to have fun," he said. "This should be the most fun he's ever had playing the game. He's really worked hard to put himself in position to have a special season, and I just want him to go out and enjoy it."
So far this summer, Mark appears to be doing just that.