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Wildcats’ back on pace for 1,400 rushing yards

Family matters to NU’s Mark

Northwestern running back Venric Mark has provided the Wildcats with a real threat out of the backfield for the first time since 2006.
AP Northwestern running back Venric Mark has provided the Wildcats with a real threat out of the backfield for the first time since 2006.

ESPN2's sideline camera found Venric Mark after he carved up Syracuse's punt team for an 82-yard score Sept. 1.

"Hi, Mom, I love you!" Mark shouted. "Happy birthday, Miss Jamie!"

And with that, Mark took care of the two most special women in his life. Jamie is Jamie Garza, Venric's godmother.

"He called me that morning on my birthday and said, 'I'm gonna take one home,' " she recalled.

As Garza watched Mark break free for Northwestern's first touchdown of the season, she said all she could think was: "Oh, my God! He did it!"

And after hearing his birthday message on national TV, she wept.

Mark's mother, Sheliia, witnessed his runback from her seat at the Carrier Dome. She did not hear the greeting until watching a replay.

"Venric has always been my son that expresses his emotions most to me," said Sheliia, a mother of five. "He might text me between classes: 'Mom, just wanted to say I love you; you are special.' "

Special is an apt word to describe Mark's play, which is why he ranks third on the Big Ten Network's Big Ten Heisman watch list behind Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Michigan's Denard Robinson.

Mark is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, second nationally to UCLA's Johnathan Franklin among rushers with 130 or more carries. His 792 yards puts him on pace for 1,470.

At Wisconsin or Nebraska, that total would be humdrum. By NU standards, it's a wondrous bounty.

Last year Kain Colter led the Wildcats with 654 rushing yards. In 2010, top rusher Mike Trumpy had 530 yards. In 2009, Arby Fields finished first with just 302.

NU's last 1,000-yard rusher was Tyrell Sutton, who finished with exactly a grand in 2006.

No wonder NU coach Pat Fitzgerald flogged himself for using Mark as only a return man and receiver in his freshman and sophomore seasons.

"We weren't sure what position to start him at," Fitzgerald said. "And as you can see, we were wrong."

Mark remains deadly on returns. His 28.8-yard average on punts qualifies as the nation's best among those with at least eight runbacks.

But it's his play at tailback that draws raves, in part because Mark is a grasshopper in a field of snakes. He is listed at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, and his teammates won't even acknowledge that.

Fellow tailback Tyris Jones joked before the season that Mark is "5-1, kind of like Gabby Douglas."

"He's always out there trying to pick a fight and talking like he's 240 pounds when he's 150 pounds," Colter said. "But that's what you need in your tailback. He fears nothing."





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