Northwestern's Mark, Lawrence catching on

EVANSTON, Ill. – Rashad Lawrence and Venric Mark have so far shared nearly every Northwestern football experience together.

Both are freshmen. Both are wide receivers. Both played in their first college game against Vanderbilt. Both made their first career catch against Illinois State. Both were late to a meeting earlier this week, and both had to run eight gassers (sideline-to-sideline sprints).

"They take meetings very seriously around here," Mark said. "I was late. Lesson learned."

The lessons have been coming non-stop for Mark and Lawrence since they arrived to campus in August for fall camp, and they've been handling them. Both showed promised in their own way during camp. Mark is a 5-8 speedster, and Lawrence is more of the prototypical receiver at 6-2, and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald decided he could use both in the Wildcats' offense as freshmen.

As much as Northwestern has thrown at them in the past month, Fitzgerald has also tried not to overwhelm them. They played sparingly against Vanderbilt and had their roles increased against Illinois State.

"I wasn't very good at swim lessons back at Carl Sandburg [High School,]" Fitzgerald said after Saturday's game. "They kind of just threw me in the deep end and said, 'Swim.' I guess I'm a little scarred from that, so I don't believe in throwing those guys in the deep end too fast too soon. Bring them along a little bit, let them get their experiences and grow from them. I definitely saw Venric play faster today and Rashad play faster."

Against Illinois State, the pair showed why Fitzgerald is optimistic about their futures.

First, Lawrence stepped up. On a post-concept route in the first quarter, Lawrence saw the defense was playing in a Cover 2, turned his route into a fade and quarterback Dan Persa connected with him on a 50-yard play up the left sideline.

"It felt great getting my first catch out of the way," Lawrence said. "It was a great first catch. I should have scored, but I let the corner back tackle me. I'll work on that."

Mark followed with his first catch in the third quarter. Backup quarterback Evan Watkins located Mark running across the middle of the field. The ball was slightly underthrown, and Mark dove for it and pulled it in for a 21-yard catch.

"I was pumped up the rest of the game," Mark said. "That's the game of football. You always want the ball in your hands. That's the type of player I am."

Now as they head into their third game, their expectations are for more.

"I feel like I'm getting a feel for the way the games are going, the speed," Lawrence said. "I'm feeling way more comfortable than coming into the camp. The first game I got the first-game jitters out. Then last game, I got my first catch. I feel I'm just focusing, ready to step in and ready to go full speed and cut it loose."

Saturday's game against Rice has a special meaning to Mark. It will be a homecoming for him as he's from Tomball, Texas, a suburb of Houston, and went to high school 15 minutes from Rice.

"I'm pumped," Mark said. "I'm of course going to have family and friends there. I just have to stay focused. That's always going to be a distraction. I can't get too high, too low. You got to play to the level of football that it's supposed to be played at.

"I wouldn't say there's extra pressure. I'm going to be pumped, though. ... When the lights go on, I just need to release."