Northwestern on Mark with return game

Freshman Venric Mark has developed into a return threat for Northwestern this season. Scott Boehm/Getty Images

EVANSTON, Ill. – Northwestern freshman Venric Mark plans to do his best Devin Hester impersonation when he takes the field to return his first kickoff in the TicketCity Bowl on Jan. 1.

Of all the returns Mark has ever witnessed, Hester’s 92-yard touchdown run on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI is by far his most memorable. That feeling, that excitement, that rush is something Mark will never forget.

Now, Mark, who has quickly become one of the most dangerous return men in the Big Ten, hopes to duplicate that for the Wildcats when they face Texas Tech in his home state of Texas in the TicketCity Bowl.

“I’m going to be in front of my family,” Mark said. “Texas is my hometown. That’s where I was born and raised. That will be my goal to take one back in front of my mom.”

Mark has come a long way in his first season. It began with Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald instructing him to take a knee on his first career kickoff return, and it’s ending with Fitzgerald giving Mark free reign to run back punts and kickoffs.

“For us, we’re looking for dynamic playmakers,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m never going to say never about playing freshmen. A guy comes in and makes a difference like that, I think it shows that freshmen can play here and can play in this conference and be pretty explosive.”

Mark saw limited time early in the season, but with Fitzgerald looking for more from his return game, Mark was given a chance to prove himself against Michigan State on Oct. 23. He returned two kickoffs for 17 and 25 yards and did well enough to earn another opportunity. Against Indiana the following week, he had a 32-yard kickoff return and also returned two punts.

From there, Mark’s confidence grew. He had a 26-yard kickoff return against Penn State. He had a 56-yard punt return against Illinois. He was getting closer and closer to breaking one.

Then in the last week of the regular season against Wisconsin, he did just that. In what was one of the few bright spots in a 70-23 loss to the Badgers, Mark sprinted 94 yards for his first collegiate touchdown return.

“I came from a Catholic school, St. Pius, and I always do the rosary symbol before, and I did,” Mark said. “Once I caught the ball and hit that first wave, I saw Vince Browne in front of me, and I saw him knock someone over, and I just heard the crowd get loud. Yeah, that’s a cliché, but once you hear that, it’s like, ‘Go.’ All I thought was, ‘Run.’

“Words can’t explain the feeling I felt. Even though we were down -- I’m not going to lie that was in the back of my mind -- but again I was happy. It was my first touchdown in my college career. I was like, ‘Come on.’ The crowd was like, ‘Boo.’ ”

Mark has returned 16 kickoffs for 442 yards and one touchdown this season. His 27.6-yard kickoff return ranks 20th in the country. He also has returned nine punts for 116 yards, a 12.9 average. He doesn’t have enough punt returns to qualify for the national rankings, but he would be placed 18th with his current average.

What separates Mark from most returner is his speed. He runs a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash and knows when to turn it on.

“He’s got a gift, man,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s got stuff you can’t coach. The good Lord blessed him with things you can’t teach and coach. He plays fast, and he’s got great speed.”

To Mark, his role model, Hester, sets the bar for returns. It’s where Mark plans to aim for his next three seasons in Evanston.

“He’s in Chicago, and now I’m in Chicago, ironically,” Mark said. “I just like him as an overall player. People say they like how he returns kicks, but that’s not all he does. He can also play offense. As a kick returner, I like his explosiveness and vision. He can cut across the field in matter of seconds. That’s something I’m trying to do.”