Venric Mark, Northwestern Wildcats football, No. 5

Rich Barnes-US PRESSWIRE

Venric Mark went from a random special teams contributor to Northwestern's top running back -- to maybe the best running back in the conference and top punt returner in the nation. 2013 has a chance to be special for Mark and the Cats.

Venric Mark! Marknado! (He prefers to be called "The Little General," but we are ignoring him.)

Northwestern's dynamic little son of a gun running back is indisputably one of the best in the conference and one of the top punt returners in the country. His unreal acceleration makes NU's offense is dynamic and tough to stop when he's in the backfield, and allows him to make gunners miss when they have to bring him down on special teams.

The Wildcats need the 5'8, 170-pound back to have a repeat of his breakout 2012 campaign to contend, and if so, we might not just be talking about him as one of the best running backs or returners, but the best. Let's read about the best running back Northwestern has seen since Tyrell Sutton and perhaps the Wildcats' most important player as they build on a 10-win campaign.

Origin myth

Venric's a Houston boy, playing at St. Pius X, named after one of my top 10 popes named "Pius." Their team name is the Panthers, so, yeah, basically TEXAS FOREVER. He was team MVP but he truly shone in his final year: 92 rushes for 772 yards -- do the math, that's a lot per rush, bruh -- 23 receptions for 242 yards, and 20 touchdowns, four on returns -- another seven were called back due to penalties! The Panthers won their district and Mark was again team MVP.

More than any player I've seen after doing over 90 of these posts, Venric Mark's highlight reel looks more like the player we've come to know at Northwestern than any other reel:

First off, bro: "Let the Bodies Hit The Floor" into "The Kids Aren't Alright" by The Offspring? This video was made in 2009. Why are you listening to the music I thought was RAD when I was 12?

But yeah: even in high school, Venric is the smallest guy on the field, and he goes zero to 60 on every single play when his opponents can't rev their motors to go past 40 at any point. He just skitters past them, a different plane of speed. Yup, that's the Marknado.

But because of his size, he didn't get a lot of looks -- he's listed in some services as 5'8, 155, which is way small. Some services had him as an athlete, others as a two-star wide receiver. 247's composite ranked him as the No. 154 wide receiver in his class, which isn't good. He'd manage some BCS offers -- Vanderbilt, Arizona, Arizona State, Iowa State, Colorado -- and some decent non-BCS options like Houston and Rice in his hometown, but he chose Northwestern the January before his signing day.

At Northwestern

Northwestern chose to start Mark's career out as a wide receiver, but it was always clear he was playing due to his value on special teams. He was one of NU's punt and kickoff returners as a true freshman, taking a kickoff to the house against Wisconsin and busting out a 58-yard return in the Wrigley bowl against Illinois, one of only nine punt returns he had on the year. Meanwhile, he only had five catches, even running the ball more times despite being termed a wide receiver. As a sophomore, it became clear wideout wasn't working -- just one catch for four yards -- but he began to see carries, rushing for 47 yards on four attempts against Indiana with 13 carries on the year, part of a transition to running back. He also fully took over as NU's kick returner.

But as a junior, with Northwestern once again facing life without a go-to running back -- just a year ago, we argued here that Northwestern didn't really need a 1,000-yard rusher -- Northwestern decided to shift Mark to RB full-time and give him the starting RB role.

To say it worked is a massive understatement. Mach V ran for 1,366 yards last year, third amongst Big Ten running backs, while picking up 6.1 yards per carry, better than any B1G running back. He had eight 100-yard rushing games, topping out with a 182-yard, two-touchdown effort against Minnesota. He proved to be the perfect foil to Kain Colter running the option and zone read, but his insane acceleration could have allowed him to thrive next to a quarterback who wasn't himself a threat to run.

Oh, and you can easily argue he was the best punt-returner in the country, with FWAA, CBS, and the Sporting News tabbing him as an All-American. He ran back punts at Syracuse and Penn State, with some other long returns too.

It's a little bit of a bummer Venric will only be around for one more year, since his true freshman year where he burnt his redshirt was wasted on some okay returns when he was really a dynamic back. It's especially a bummer since the 2010 and 2011 teams both could have used a runner instead of hoping for something out of Arby Fields, Jacob Schmidt, Adonis Smith, and a cast of thousands. Pat Fitzgerald admitted as much, saying it was a mistake to put Mark at wide receiver, although others clearly had the same issue identifying his talent. What's important is that we recognize his skills now, and that we get to watch him run for another year.

Career highlight

I gotta pick?

Probably either the opening day going this way NOPE GOING THAT WAY punt return or the shot-out-of-a-cannon 50-yard TD run against Minnesota that took maybe six seconds from start to finish.

And although we know he doesn't like the nickname, let us watch MARKNADO:

Anagram of choice

Discovering the Wildcats' true inner selves through spelling

Venric Mark, anagrammed, is

VERMIN RACK

What you get when you kill a bunch of rats and voles and skinks and pile em up, I suppose.

Relevant musical selection

"Just a Friend," Biz Markie

25 years old, classic, still hilarious. Biz Markie is a national treasure.

Venric tweets

HYPE HYPE HYPE HYPE HYPE

ha!

Dude really likes getting active.

How he can help

Well, it's obvious. He's Northwestern's starting running back. He could be the best running back not just on Northwestern, but in the conference. He allows Northwestern to do what it does offensively, more than any other player -- Kain Colter's versatility is incredible, but his effectiveness would drop without somebody as dynamic as Mark -- and he might be the single most important player the Wildcats have as they look to launch a historic 2013 campaign.

His acceleration and ability to shift makes him an elite running back at the college level, and like I said, he may be the best punt returner in the country. He actually doesn't have Grade A straight line speed -- note, Micah Hyde catching up to him in the Iowa game last year -- but nobody gets up to top gear faster than him, and in the situations Northwestern puts him in -- zone reads, where a mesh can lead to either Mark or Colter sprinting in a split-second in completely opposite directions, or punts, when he has to make a catch, look down, then make a guy miss -- are perfect for this. Although we doubted his size and durability for a Big Ten running back, he's elusive enough to avoid the brunt of hits, and, well, dude's got heart! Remember this story about how dude used to box? He'll never be Le'Veon Bell, but he showed us he could make his way through Big Ten play.

My one concern about Venric in 2013 is that he gets winded. He's listed as NU's top running back, kick returner, and punt returner. He's too good at returning punts to take him off that duty. But I wouldn't mind seeing Tony Jones return the majority of kicks. I don't think there's anybody else on the roster who provides what NU needs from a running back on first and second downs, so I think you have to leave him in the game even if he's just returned a punt, but I wouldn't mind upping the responsibilities of the third-down/short-yardage gigs for Mike Trumpy and Treyvon Green, and maybe even letting Trumpy take full sets of downs to let Mark breathe. He does say he wants to make his running style even more elusive and play even less to contact, so that's good.

Depth chart

No. 1. Duh.

Accolades

2013 preseason first-team all-Big Ten running back, Walter Camp (POY), Maxwell (POY), Doak Walker (RB), Hornung (Most versatile) Watch Lists, No. 5 player in the B1G (ESPN, BTN), No. 1 important player at NU (Inside NU)

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