KENOSHA, Wis. -- Northwestern's practice Thursday began with some players, mostly baritone offensive linemen, singing Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a prayer." It ended with the annual watermelon eating contest.
The Wildcats didn't exactly look like a team in crisis.
They've endured a lot in the past 10 months, from a season-crippling Big Ten losing streak to the potentially locker room splintering unionization campaign with no resolution. The latest blow arrived Wednesday, as star running back Venric Mark announced he would transfer, the day after he oozed optimism about the 2014 season. To make things worse, Northwestern also learned leading receiver Christian Jones would miss the season with a left knee injury.
Wednesday's news sparked doom-and-gloom forecasts among fans and media members, but there were no dark clouds above the Wildcats as they went through their workout.
"The approach of this group since January, they have been through some things together now and it's on our seniors and leadership council to step up and lead," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I've seen no dip at all, and this is another tough bump in the road."
Fitzgerald provided few details about Mark's departure other than confirming that the running back could have remained on the team but chose to transfer. It's unclear whether Mark would have faced additional playing-time discipline beyond the initial two games if he decided to stay.
Mark left the team's off-site training camp Wednesday morning and the team learned of his departure after practice that night.
"I don't think many people knew about it, if anyone knew about it," senior safety Ibraheim Campbell said. "It was definitely a tough loss. It was a family member that our guys knew [and] love. It's kind of sad to see him go."
Campbell spoke to Mark, who told him that he was "going through some things at home" and needed to be closer to his family in Houston. Mark hopes to play this season but might face several hurdles to be eligible. He has one course to complete this fall to finish his undergraduate degree.
"Like I told him and his mom, we'll help him in any way we can," Fitzgerald said. "We'll see where that goes. That's out of my control. ... It's an unfortunate part of college football, but it happens. The challenge, quite frankly, is on him. We move on. The program moves on. The challenge is always on the individuals."
Northwestern likes its depth both at running back and wide receiver despite the losses of Mark and Jones. Veteran Treyvon Green leads the running back group, but two true freshmen, Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault, are expected to play this fall, Fitzgerald said. Northwestern also has experience at receiver with Tony Jones, Cameron Dickerson and Kyle Prater, the USC transfer who finally looks ready to blossom.
The biggest void could be at punt returner, where Mark earned All-America honors in 2012. Campbell and wideout Mike McHugh both practiced catching punts Thursday. Northwestern lacked big-play ability both on offense and special teams last season, two spots where Mark could have helped.
While the Wildcats seemingly have faced more adversity than most teams in the offseason, Fitzgerald isn't concerned about the cumulative effects.
"Externally, it would seem like it has been maybe overwhelming, but internally I think it’s a lot different," Fitzgerald said. "... I read somewhere that Nebraska lost a couple guys. It's tough stuff, but that's why you recruit guys, that's why you coach 'em up.
"That injury or that circumstance is really tough for a guy, but it's another man's opportunity. It's their job to step up, and I know our guys will."