Battle of the quarterbacks: Replacing Rush
Redshirt freshman, grad transfer from Michigan will both see playing time in season opener
With Central Michigan's previous starting quarterback now completing preseason passes for the NFL's Dallas Cowboys and the Chippewas season opener set for Aug. 31, the question remains — who will replace Cooper Rush?
The competition has come down to redshirt freshman Tony Poljan and graduate transfer student Shane Morris. Redshirt freshman Austin Hergott and junior Tommy Lazzaro are also battling for the starting job.
Head coach John Bonamego said the timetable for naming CMU's starting quarterback is still to be determined until after the season opener against Rhode Island on Aug. 31 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
"Shane has the desperation of a guy (who) is in his final year of college football. Tony i an intensely competitive kid," Bonamego said. "Overall, I'm pleased with where we're at in that position."
The goal for Thursday's home opener is to give both quarterbacks the chance to play in live action rather than playing against each other and their teammates, Bonamego said.
Future of the program
At 6-foot-7, Poljan was the standout of Bonamego's first recruiting class in 2016. He entered CMU as a true freshman after graduating from Lansing Catholic High School — the same program that produced Rush — with more than 9,000 career passing yards and 116 touchdown passes.
Poljan spent the 2016 season as one of Rush's backups, along with redshirt freshman Austin Hergott and junior Tommy Lazzaro. With Morris on the roster for just one season, Bonamego openly admits he is building the program around Poljan.
"Tony is the future of this program," Bonamego said. "He has not disappointed in any way academically (or) as a leader. He's always the first one in the weight room. He is as competitive as anyone you'll ever be around."
Morris took a different route to CMU. Coming out of De La Salle High School in Warren, the left-handed Morris signed with the University of Michigan in 2013.
His time in Ann Arbor didn't live up the the standard he set for his football career, but Morris said he has no regrets. He earned a bachelor's degree in sports management from Michigan in April and is enrolled in graduate school at CMU studying project management.
Before visiting campus, Morris had ties with CMU through former teammates and coaches. His roommate, cornerback Josh Cox, played alongside him at De La Salle. His high school coach, Paul Verska, serves as a special assistant on Bonmego's staff and convinced Morris to visit CMU last spring.
"Knowing a lot of people definitely kept me interested," Morris said. "When I got here, I really enjoyed the campus, the coaches and everything about the (football) program. I knew this is where I wanted to spend my last year playing football. It's a good opportunity for me. I'm happy I decided to come here."
There are significant differences for Morris, switching from a Big 10 Conference school to the Mid-American Conference, but the welcome from his teammates made the adjustment a lot easier. He highlighted the wide receivers he's worked with so far like seniors Corey Willis and Mark Chapman, as well as sophomore Brandon Childress.
He also praised the talent of the offensive line, which returns five starters from the 2016 season.
"Having pretty much the whole offense coming back is experience you can't really beat," Morris said. "I can really feel this team wants to be great and we really want to do something special. It's exciting to be around."
Bonamego said the battle between Morris and Poljan is split equally in regards to talent. He added the competition between the two quarterbacks has been a healthy one, with both players helping and supporting each other.
"Those two going at it in that position has really raised the level of everybody's game on both sides of the ball," Bonamego said.
A prominent change all the quarterbacks and the rest of the team has adjusted to during training camp is the new spread offense. Instilled by first-year offensive coordinator Chris Ostrowsky, the spread offense replaces the pro-style set the Chippewas used in previous seasons.
"Both (quarterbacks) bring a unique skillset in regards to executing the system," Ostrowsky said. "We're in a great situation. We've got two guys that we think we can be significant winners with."
Ostrowsky said Morris and Poljan have been "on target" for where they need to be Thursday.
“I ran the spread at Lansing Catholic," Poljan said. "I would say I feel more comfortable in the spread than the pro-style offense."
Despite the three-year age difference and experience playing for a Power Five Conference school, Morris doesn't see himself as a mentor for Poljan. He instead thinks of their relationship as one where each player benefits from the other's strengths and weaknesses.
Poljan said the competition has brought out the best in both of them and has only made them better friends. Morris echoed Poljan's remarks, emphasizing the diversity in skillset each bring to the table.
"Tony's a great athlete," Morris said. "There are a lot of things in the run game that he can do better than me.
"You can take little things from every quarterback you watch. Everyone does things differently. You can pick and choose things and add it to your game. Iron sharpens iron."