EVANSTON, Ill. -- Boot-free and three weeks ahead of schedule, Venric Mark has adjusted to a different view of Northwestern's spring practice as he recovers from winter ankle surgery.
"What’s jumped out to me: At first he was a lead-by-example guy. Great work ethic and commitment," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "And now he’s a guy who has been through a bunch, is wiser and is able to impart some wisdom. He’s really willing to give."
Said Mark: "Right now I'm learning how to be a leader while sitting out, and I can say that's one thing I have actually improved on."
Mark is running and cutting this spring, happy to be granted a fifth season by the NCAA but eager to get back in the action on the field. He has locked himself in mentally by further immersing himself in the playbook while learning how to hold underclassmen more accountable.
The surgery, he said, was hardly a real surgery at all, with the running back describing a procedure in which an incision the size of a fingernail was made in his left ankle to clear out "two loose bodies" before he was sewed back up.
It came on the heels of a lost season in which Mark missed the Wildcats' final six-plus games -- after missing most of the first four with a hamstring injury -- because of a fracture suffered during a goal-line play Oct. 12 at Wisconsin.
"We ran inside-zone, I end up cutting it up, I got hit from both sides, stayed on my feet, I'm on top of my feet, somebody else comes in and tries to dive to take out the pile and ends up chipping the side of my ankle," Mark said. "And me personally, I thought it was an ankle sprain, so I stayed in the game.
"And actually, the defense went out, made a great stop and then I went back to actually punt return, and then when I went back to punt return, I'm like bouncing around. I'm like, 'Hold on, I've had an ankle sprain before -- this is not the same.' And that's when of course everything else followed."
Mark refused to leave the game before finally recognizing his limitations while trying to run a route as a receiver. And seeing the team struggle through the rest of its underwhelming 5-7 campaign has created a whole new cohesiveness this spring.
As Mark and his teammates deal with questions about Northwestern's unionization efforts -- a topic that isn't going away anytime soon -- the redshirt senior senses a confluence of factors he believes has made the Wildcats closer than he's ever seen them.
"I feel like the disappointment last year had a big (contribution) to our team being a lot closer now," Mark said, "because when you have a good season and then you end up having another bad season, it's kind of a reality check. And so now we know what the standard is, if that makes sense. Five-and-whatever-we-went, that's not the standard of Northwestern, and we need to make sure we understand that."
For those reasons and many more, the NFL can wait for Mark, who's looking to add to his 4,271 career all-purpose yards and return to his All-America form of 2012.
"I can honestly say that: That never crossed my mind at all," Mark said. "One year and done; that's really not my thing. The first two years I was here, I understand they were trying to prep me, get me ready, so that's understandable. I did have a good junior year and I wanted to end on a good note. Being here, this school's done a lot for me and my family, everybody on my team. So it's just a great opportunity just to be here. So I wanted to get my degree, make sure I finish out and have one more good year before trying to pursue the NFL."