Mark shapes up for Wildcats

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern’s Venric Mark discovered the hard way just how closely Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald analyzes his players when they return to him following their offseason.

Mark, a sophomore wideout, put on five pounds over the summer. To him, his body didn’t feel much different. He was up to 178 pounds, and he thought he was still running at the same speed.

Fitzgerald disagreed.

“I couldn’t see the difference,” Mark said on Wednesday. “Apparently, they did. I wouldn’t argue with coach. If he felt that way, I’m going to change that, which I did.”

Mark has since lost those five pounds, dropping him back to 173, and he’s returned to Fitzgerald’s favor. And when Fitzgerald is happy with him, Mark can be a multi-dimensional weapon for the Wildcats. Northwestern is using Mark in his usual spot in the punt and kick returning game, but also in the backfield -- the Wildcats even threw him out on defense against Michigan.

"He’s in better shape than he was when he reported to camp,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s why he’s getting a more significant role. Hopefully, he’s learned a lesson that you can’t come into camp and not be at your elite level shape and expect to play.

“Young guys do young things. He was a young kid. He got a little fool’s gold, playing as a true freshman, thought he had all answers.”

Fitzgerald went through a similar setback following his freshman season at Northwestern.

“I went home to Orland Park, took a summer class at Moraine Valley, didn’t pass the conditioning test, watched Hugh Williams play a lot of football my sophomore year,” Fitzgerald said. “So, you get what you deserve. You reap what you sow. I learned that a long time ago.”

Mark now grasps that, too.

“I think coach kind of hit it on the head,” Mark said. “I thought I would come in. I thought I would play a lot. I practice very well. I give it my all. I run as fast as I can. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. Instead of being negative, I just help uplift my team. I think they see it. I think as long as I buy into the program I think everything will be OK.”

Mark was given his chance against Michigan. He caught his first pass of the season. He had his first two rushing attempts of the year. He also played linebacker in an attempt to contain Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.

As always, Mark also handled punt and kick return duties. He returned one punt for 20 yards and had a total of 30 yards on two kick returns. He hasn’t returned any kicks for a touchdown this season, but he’s come close. He’s had a 28-yard punt return and a 63-yard kick return.

“He’s dynamic,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s electric. He can make things happen every time he gets the ball in his hands.”

If Mark is going to leave his mark on Saturday’s Iowa game, he would prefer to do so with a punt return. It’s still his favorite part of playing football.

“I think you have to love the spotlight to be a punt returner,” Mark said. “That’s my honest opinion. I believe punt returning is a lot harder than kick returning. It takes skill.”