Bears

Northwestern's Mark named to All-American team

963351.png

Northwestern's Mark named to All-American team

Venric Mark is now among Northwestern football's all-time elite.

The speedy Wildcat junior was named an All-American punt returner by the Football Writers Association of America on Friday.

His name now joins 37 other Wildcat All-Americans lining the upper deck at Ryan Field.

"I was really stoked once I heard the news," said Mark following an indoor practice session as Northwestern continued preparation for the Jan. 1 TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. "I kind of put my phone down, sat there for a little bit and called my mom and let her know. She was excited too."

Mark is the 39th all-time Northwestern's football All-American and first since offensive lineman Zach Strief in 2005. He's also the lone representative from the Big Ten on the FWAA's 69th annual team.

Then again, when it came to punt returns, there were none better around the nation this season.

Mark averaged 20.1 yards per return and ranked No. 1 in the nation, nearly four yards better than his closest competitor.

Mark was also the first Northwestern player since 1949 to collect two punt return touchdowns in a season. He had an 82-yard return against Syracuse and a 75-yard score at Penn State.

"I was really excited," he said. "It says a lot. I feel like I haven't got to this point by myself. I have to give a lot of praise to my teammates...(and) it'll be a pretty good legacy for my family to come up to the school and see my name on the field."

Just what makes Mark a great punt return specialist?

"I would say vision and trusting my teammates," he said. "It's (also) being very decisive. You ask anybody in the league or anybody in college who's an elite returner and they'll tell you the same thing."

Wildcat coach Pat Fitzgerald may be quick to dismiss the explosion of college football awards, but not this one.

"It's very deserving," said Fitzgerald, the school's only two-time All-American as a standout defensive player in the mid-1990s. "This one's credible, it's legit compared to some of the other All-American teams. This one counts."

Mark also earned second team all-Big Ten honors as a running back after he rushed for 1,310 yards and scored 12 touchdowns (11 rushing). Fitzgerald said he felt Mark was the league's best in the backfield and deserved better.

He averaged 171 all purpose yards per game, good for ninth in the country. Mark needs 148 yards to break Damien Anderson's all-time Northwestern record of 2,195 yards set in 2000.

Mark also landed first team punt return honors from The Sporting News and CBSSports.com.

"I'm really proud of what he's accomplished here in his three years," Fitzgerald added. "He's a true junior and -- as I said to the team -- on those long punt returns those 10 guys up front blocking for him did a terrific job.

"But he's the one that went out and made the play and it would be fun if he went out and played that way on the first, which he should."

The school said Mark suffered an "upper extremity" injury in November against Michigan, but time off since the Nov. 18 season finale with Illinois has helped him regain full health.

"Right now I feel really good," he said. "I almost feel 100 percent. The coaches do a great job, Coach Fitz does a great job of making sure we're healthy but making sure we're paying attention to detail and staying sharp but also taking care of our bodies."

Northwestern (9-3) meets Mississippi State (8-4) at 11 a.m. (Central) on Jan. 1 at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., home of the NFL Jaguars.

Training for that game turned more serious on Saturday as Fitzgerald worked on the game plan against their Southeastern Conference foe.

"Today was really game plan day," he said. "We've put some things in the other practice when the varsity went at it. But today would be like Tuesday of game week-type practice ... We'll have everything in by the time the guys go home (for the holiday)."

Matt Nagy calls Kevin White a 'great weapon' with a new future

Matt Nagy calls Kevin White a 'great weapon' with a new future

Former first-round pick Kevin White hasn't caught a break -- or a touchdown -- through the first three years of his career. He has more season-ending injuries than 100-yard games and after an offseason focused on upgrades at wide receiver, White's future in Chicago beyond 2018 is very much in doubt.

Ryan Pace declined the fifth-year option in White's rookie contract, making this a prove-it year for the pass-catcher who once resembled a blend of Larry Fitzgerald and Dez Bryant during his time at West Virginia.

He's getting a fresh start by new coach Matt Nagy.

"He is healthy and he's really doing well," Nagy told Danny Kanell and Steve Torre Friday on SiriusXM's Dog Days Sports. "We're trying to keep him at one position right now so he can focus in on that."

White can't take all the blame for his 21 catches, 193 yards and zero scores through 48 possible games. He's only suited up for five. Whether it's bad luck or bad bone density, White hasn't had a legitimate chance to prove, on the field, that he belongs.

Nagy's looking forward, not backward, when it comes to 2015's seventh pick overall.

"That's gone, that's in the past," Nagy said of White's first three years. "This kid has a new future with us."

White won't be handed a job, however.

"He's gotta work for it, he's gotta put in the time and effort to do it," Nagy said. "But he will do that, he's been doing it. He's a great weapon, he's worked really hard. He has great size, good speed. We just want him to play football and not worry about anything else."

Nagy on Trubisky: 'He wants to be the best'

Nagy on Trubisky: 'He wants to be the best'

The Bears concluded their second round of OTAs on Thursday with the third and final set of voluntary sessions scheduled for May 29-June 1. Coach Matt Nagy is bringing a new and complicated system to Chicago, so the time spent on the practice field with the offense and quarterback Mitch Trubisky has been invaluable.

"We’ve thrown a lot at Mitch in the last 2 ½ months,” Nagy told Dog Days Sports’ Danny Kanell and Steve Torre on Friday. “He’s digested it really well.”

Nagy’s implementing the same system he operated with the Chiefs, an offense that brought the best out of Redskins quarterback Alex Smith. The former first-overall pick went from potential draft bust to MVP candidate under Andy Reid and Nagy’s watch.

Nagy admitted he and his staff may have been a little too aggressive with the amount of information thrust upon Trubisky so far.  It took five years to master the offense in Kansas City, he said, but the first-year head coach sees a lot of similarities between his current and past quarterbacks.

"These guys are just wired differently,” Nagy said when comparing Trubisky to Smith. “With Mitch, the one thing that you notice each and every day is this kid is so hungry. He wants to be the best. And he’s going to do whatever he needs to do. He’s so focused.”

Smith had the best year of his career in 2017 and much of the credit belongs to Nagy, who served as Smith’s position coach in each season of his tenure in Kansas City. He threw for eight touchdowns and only two interceptions during the five regular season games that Nagy took over play-calling duties last year.

Nagy said Trubisky has a similar attention to detail that Smith brought to the Chiefs’ quarterback room.

"Each and every detail that we give him means something. It’s not just something he writes down in a book. He wants to know the why,” Nagy said of Trubisky. “He’s a good person that is in this for the right reason. His teammates absolutely love him. It was the same thing with Alex [Smith] in Kansas City.”

A locker room that believes in its quarterback is a critically important variable for success, one that Nagy already sees exists in Chicago.

"When you have that as a coach and when you have that as being a quarterback, not everybody has that, and when you have that you’re in a good spot.”