Northwestern is off to a 2-0 start, but coach Pat Fitzgerald suggested Monday just one player on the offense is playing at a championship level.
That player's identity is no secret. Junior running back Venric Mark leads the Big Ten in all-purpose yards with 439. He rushed for 123 in Saturday's 23-13 win over Vanderbilt and returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown in the opener at Syracuse.
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The fact that Mark is making such a big impact, though, is a bit surprising.
The Tomball, Tex., native was initially pegged as a wide receiver and return specialist. He didn't make the move to running back until midway through last season.
"We thought because of his size (5-foot-8, 180 pounds), initially, he might be better suited to playing out at wide receiver," Fitzgerald said at his weekly news conference in Evanston. "That worked OK, but we thought if we could find a better position to get the ball in his hands more, his dynamic ability could really make a difference.
"He's obviously matured in front of everybody's eyes, but more importantly, for himself, he's just bought in. He's invested greatly and I think he's playing with an attitude. Some people say he's not big enough. I think that just fuels his attitude."
Of course, his own coaching staff once felt Mark wasn't big enough to play running back full-time, but that's ancient history now.
"Venric, he might be a little guy, but he has the biggest heart on the team," guard Chuck Porcelli said. "It's just great being around a guy like that. I think it brings the entire team's spirits up. He's so passionate about everything he does, and you can see it in his eyes."
The rest of the offense has plenty of room to improve, according to Fitzgerald. He complained Monday about technique on the offensive line, accuracy of the two quarterbacks and reliability of the wide receivers.
"We've got to catch the football," Fitzgerald said. "I don't care where the ball's thrown. I reminded them, it's a $60,000 scholarship -- catch the ball."
The Wildcats (2-0) have a big game coming Saturday against Boston College at Ryan Field (2:30 p.m., BTN). With South Dakota, Indiana, Penn State and Minnesota following on the schedule, Northwestern has a chance to be in the thick of the Legends Division race when Nebraska visits on Oct. 20.
Cats enjoy study break:
With Northwestern on the quarters system, players have the unique experience of not going to class until Sept. 27 -- two days before their fifth game of the season. Coach Pat Fitzgerald talked about that scenario.
"There's no doubt in my mind it's a huge advantage not being in school," he said. "No. 1, it's a huge selling point in recruiting. Four games a year, plus bowl games, times four (years of school) -- that's 20 games in their career they're not going to take a class.
"That's like being in the NFL. That's ridiculous. I promise you, our guys love it."
By NCAA rule, the Wildcats are still limited to the number of hours they can practice per week. Fitzgerald remembers enjoying his September down time as a player.
"I remember back in my day, I was just going back (home) and watching 'Doogie Howser' and 'Wonder Years,'" he said. "Now they can play video games against each other on their phones."
Starting cornerback Nick VanHoose suffered a back injury on the second play of the game against Vanderbilt. His spot was filled by Quinn Evans, a Stanford transfer who took advantage of the NCAA's graduate student rules that gave him immediate eligibility. … Former Wildcats defensive lineman Luis Castillo, who wrapped up a seven-year career with the San Diego Chargers this summer, will be Saturday's honorary captain. … Two players from last year's NU team made NFL practice squads -- tight end Drake Dunsmore with Tampa Bay and offensive lineman Al Netter in San Francisco.