You just can’t help but be intrigued by what Pat Fitzgerald is putting together with the Northwestern Wildcats right now. The 38-year old is quietly putting together one of the strongest teams in the Big Ten, with one of the most explosive playmakers in the conference, if not the country.
Northwestern might not have a ton of big-name NFL prospects going into this year, and they might not have anyone taken before the third or fourth round, but this is a top 25 pre-season squad that has some nice under the radar prospects, starting with an All-Conference running back and All-American return specialist.
5 RB Venric Mark (5’8″ 175 pounds SENIOR)
They say big things often come in small packages…or something like that. Whatever the corny phrase, it’s true for little Venric Mark, who is small in stature but packs a huge punch as a playmaker. He will have questions about durability as he enters into the NFL in 2014, as well as whether or not he can hold up at his size at the RB position going forward. But the fact remains, Mark had a dominant breakout season in the Big Ten last year as a running back, a conference that is certainly not known for having a bunch of skinny kids who aren’t tough. The Big Ten has a reputation for being big, strong, and blue collar, and Mark was absolutely dominant as a junior, on his way to All-Conference honors.
Mark can get swallowed up in the backfield due to his size, but when he hits the open field, there aren’t many more players in the country who are as elusive and explosive as he is. Rushed for over 1,300 yards as a junior with a YPC average of over six, and had 12 touchdowns on the ground. Also caught 20 passes for 104 yards and one TD, figures that could very well increase now that he’s established himself as a star in this Northwestern offense. Averaged nearly 19 yards per punt return on 15 returns last season, and had two touchdowns. Also had 416 kick return yards, and is really one of the most exciting all-purpose backs in college football right now.
Because of his ability to be a special teams ace, Venric Mark will make an NFL roster right away and could be used as a weapon offensively as well. I am just blown away by his ability to reach the second and third level of defense with such urgency. He’s not going to be an overly effective between the tackles runner, but he probably doesn’t need to be all the time. He could stand to add some muscle to his frame, but without losing his speed or quickness. I really like this player a lot. I think he’s flying way too far under the radar right now.
2 QB/OW Kain Colter (6’0″ 190 pounds, SENIOR)
Is there anything Colter can’t do? Colter started 12 of 13 games for the Wildcats at QB last year and filled in admirably for Dan Persa a couple of years ago while he was injured, but I don’t foresee QB as his position when he transitions to the NFL, and he’s probably just fine with that. While Colter is a QB at Northwestern, it’s merely a way to get the ball in his hands on every play and run their option offense to perfection. Like Denard Robinson at Michigan, the Wildcats want Colter to have the ball as much as possible, and he’s been very effective with the football in his hands. He ran for 891 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, while passing for 872 yards and eight more touchdowns.
Colter also lined up at WR for the Wildcats last season, catching 16 passes for 169 yards. As he transitions to the pros, I could very well see Colter play some RB and some WR going forward, as well as some wildcat. The success of Denard Robinson in Jacksonville–albeit unfair–could determine the draft position of Colter. He’s not been nearly as productive in college as Robinson was at Michigan, but he offers a similar skillset involving the ability to run the ball, throw it, and catch it pretty well. The major difference is, Colter has experience as a receiver, which could attract NFL teams.
I don’t know if he’s draftable at this point, but he is certainly an intriguing prospect for the NFL that could have some upside as an OW (offensive weapon).
97 DE Tyler Scott (6’4″ 265 pounds, SENIOR)
Scott was the Northwestern defensive MVP in 2012, and enters the 2013 season as their top defensive player yet again. As a junior in 2012, Scott led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks, racking up 42 total tackles, three forced fumbles, and five batted passes. His breakout season came one year after contributing mostly in a reserve role as a sophomore (six games started), and the coaches are really high on what he can do going forward. Heading into the 2013 season, Scott had the most sacks (9.0) of any returning player in the conference, and looks like he could develop into a really solid NFL pass rusher. He is a workout warrior with a good reputation off the field, and a pretty humble kid who is always looking to improve.
Northwestern is able to use Scott all over the defensive line, because his strength allows him to stunt from the DT position and penetrate the middle of the line. He doesn’t have elite quickness off the edge, but he uses power to bull rush his way to QBs. The coaching staff at NW says Scott is taking the next step, even after a big time breakout season like the one he had in 2012. He should be among the top defenders in the Big Ten as a senior, and could wind up being a top 64 selection in the 2014 NFL Draft. He’s going to see a lot of double teams as a senior, so he’s going to need to be opportunistic and learn to work through it. Certainly this is one of the best defensive end prospects in the Big Ten, as well as in the country. He’s not Jadeveon Clowney by any means, but he’s an impact player who can help an NFL team in the pass rush department.
37 K Jeff Budzien (5’11” 165 pounds, SENIOR)
Budzien is an excellent kicking prospect who hit 19 of 20 field goals last season after hitting just six of 10 the year prior. He was also 6-of-7 last year on attempts of 40 yards or longer, proving he has some deep distance accuracy. Northwestern punter Jeff Flaherty handled kickoff duties last year, so that’s an area where Budzien is going to have to prove himself at the next level, especially since Flaherty only had six touchbacks in 66 kickoffs.