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Article updated: 8/8/2013 9:19 PM

Northwestern football bowled over with optimism

By Mike McGraw

There was plenty of buzz at Northwestern media day about a YouTube video posted this week by someone with the user name Purple Glop.

The video is equal parts sincere tribute to 2013 Northwestern football and cutting-edge sports comedy. There's also a sequel that pays tribute to the NU-Iowa series, a rivalry largely ignored until now.

Many of the Wildcats' key players were given nicknames by Purple Glop, but the most popular seemed to be "Marknado," which was gifted to running back Venric Mark.

"I do not like the name 'Marknado,'" Mark said Thursday. "I appreciate whoever made the video, but I prefer 'Little General.' That's what my teammates call me."

Talk of fan tributes and wacky nicknames fit with the atmosphere at Northwestern, where optimism is at a level seldom seen in the 131-year history of Wildcats football.

To cap off a run of five straight bowl appearances, NU won 10 games for just the second time in school history and beat Mississippi State -- from the SEC, no less -- in the Gator Bowl to end the 64-year wait for a bowl victory.

Not coincidentally, Northwestern is making noise in recruiting. The Cats' 2014 class currently is ranked No. 24 in the nation by ESPN. That's a long way from No. 1, but NU's recruits are rarely ranked in the top 50, so this is significant progress.

"Without a doubt, that was a big springboard to recruiting," coach Pat Fitzgerald said of the bowl win. "We go play a team from the SEC and beat them in the SEC's back yard (Jacksonville, Fla.) Now we have everybody's attention."

With a new lakefront practice facility in the works and the move to a seemingly less challenging Big Ten West Division coming in 2014, they're thinking big in Evanston.

"You look at all those programs that have kind of stepped it up -- Stanford, Baylor. We feel like we could definitely do that," quarterback Kain Colter said. "We've proven ourselves as a great academic institution. We want to prove ourselves as great athletically. I think we're on the path to do that."

Added center Brandon Vitable: "People here aren't afraid to work hard. We've gotten to this point academically in our lives because we put in the work when we were younger.

"So it's the same thing with football. We're willing to put the work in. We think we should be competing for the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten championship every year."

For starters, Northwestern is hoping to field one of the Big Ten's fastest offensive backfields with Mark and Colter. Mark, who led the conference in all-purpose yards, said his goal for this season is to be shiftier when he runs and not simply rely on straight-ahead speed.

Fitzgerald is planning to rotate quarterbacks again. Colter and passing specialist Trevor Siemian split time last year, with Siemian throwing for 1,312 yards and Colter 872.

"We have two guys that can play, two guys we think can lead us to a championship," Fitzgerald said. "What's the old coaches' thing, 'If you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one?' Is that the old saying? Well, I think we proved that wrong."

The success of the quarterback rotation is open to debate, and it's probably destined to fail if Colter spends significant time on the sideline. But he said he's ready and willing to jump in again at receiver when Siemian is on the field.

"I'm prepared for whatever they need me to play," said Colter, who has 60 career receptions. "When Trevor goes in there I'm not getting benched. I'm usually on the field somewhere, so that's nice.

"It keeps defenses on their toes and opens up the playbook to a lot of different things I can do when I'm out there playing different positions."

The biggest question heading into the season is on the offensive line, where NU must replace three starters. Jack Konopka (Fremd) will shift from right to left tackle, while most of the candidates for the three vacant spots are young.

On defense, Northwestern returns seven starters, including Big Ten sack leader Tyler Scott and junior safety Ibraheim Campbell, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection. Kicker Jeff Budzien is another standout.

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