Youthful Determination: Sophomore Tony Poljan leads ambitious, young Central Michigan football team
Coaching a young team can be a blessing or a curse, mused Central Michigan football’s John Bonamego. For him and his staff, the 2018 team has been a gift – one poised with talent, grit and hunger.
“People (think) you just pick up where you left off last season. That’s just not the case,” Bonamego said. “I’ve seen a lot of improvement, but we aren’t done yet.”
The Chippewas leaned on starting quarterback Cooper Rush for four years. Just one year ago, the team was getting ready to send graduate transfer quarterback Shane Morris out on the field.
This season, all eyes will be on novice redshirt sophomore Tony Poljan. Bonamego talked about embracing the youth during CMU Media Day at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
Bonamego said the team intends to use the run-pass option offense. For 2018, it will allow Poljan to decide what to do with the ball in his hands.
“Our vision for this offense moving forward is designed quarterback runs,” Bonamego said. “When you look at Tony and then (freshman) George Pearson, it’s important to have a mobile quarterback because it puts so much stress on the defense.”
Last season, Poljan appeared in all 13 games. The Lansing native played multiple positions using his 6-foot-7, 235 pound frame. He completed 10-of-17 passes for 61 yards, caught five passes for 97 yards and ran 23 times for 110 yards and a touchdown.
“I try to lead by example; show up first to practice and work hard,” Poljan said of his leadership abilities at CMU Media Day. “That’s how you earn respect.”
The Chippewas finished the 2017 season with an 8-5 record, going 6-2 in the Mid-American Conference to earn second place in the West Division.
When Poljan isn’t making plays with his legs or arm, expect junior running back Jonathan Ward to assume a bulk of the snaps this season. Poljan said he already has an outstanding relationship with Ward. The running back said his new starting quarterback is a leader he wants to go to battle with on a game-by-game basis.
In 13 games for the Chippewas in 2017, Ward ran for 178 yards, 1,024 yards and 10 touchdowns. He added 48 receptions for 470 yards and three touchdowns. Being able to find Ward out of the backfield in a catch-and-run situation is imperative for CMU, seeing as the top three pass catchers – Tyler Conklin, Corey Willis and Mark Chapman – graduated to the NFL.
At Mid-American Conference media day, Ward and Bonamego said it would be a wast of time to strive for anything less than the conference championship.
Barring injuries, senior Logan Hessbrook will start at tight end and redshirt junior Brandon Childress will occupy a starting wide receiver spot.
The other three receiver positions are up for grabs heading into the regular season. Those in the blend are redshirt junior Jamil Sabbagh, sophomore JaCorey Sullivan, fifth-year Devon Spalding and redshirt junior Damon Terry.
“It’s more (wide receiver) by committee,” Bonamego said. "Nobody comes in as a ready-made player. You never know how a player is going to react when they get in the game.”
CMU’s defense features a more mature group, especially with the linemen and linebackers. Bonamego said he wouldn't be surprised if fifth-year linebacker Malik Fountain and senior defensive end Mitch Stanitzek were named captains.
Fountain, senior Alex Briones, redshirt junior Michael Oliver and fifth-year senior Trevor Apsey are the most experienced linebackers on the team from an age standpoint.
“The things I look for are body language, effort, focus and I want to see improvement form everyone, myself included,” Bonamego said. “I want everyone to show up on time, do what you’re supposed to do, and do it to the best of your ability.”
Despite the defensive line and linebacker positions featuring adroit members, the defensive backs are like most of the offense – less experienced.
Junior Sean Bunting is the only remaining starter in CMU’s secondary. Cornerback Amari Coleman and safeties Darwyn Kelly and Josh Cox graduated last year. With three open positions, the voids are envisioned to be filled by redshirt junior Da’Quan Jamison at free safety, senior JUCO transfer Tyjuan Swain at strong safety and Oregon State graduate transfer Xavier Crawford at the remaining cornerback spot.
“We’ve all created a good relationship to where we trust each other,” Bunting said. “We can depend on each other to have success.”
More than just having a comradery in the secondary, Bunting now views himself as a leader of the group. He has paid his dues and developed the trust of teammates.
Bonamego said some players have “bumps and bruises,” but the team health as a whole is solid. Most of the key positions in the starting lineup have been set, while the main question mark remains at wide receiver.
Losing a veteran presence on a strong 2017 team may pose some problems for the Chippewas, but Bonamego believes the 2018 roster is his most talented group. If the puzzle pieces connect quickly, this year’s team could be special.
"The young kids are still learning how we do things with preparation, effort and to finish, not just being scheme sound," Bonamego said. "They are being force-fed that every day. I like the attitude and spirit out here."
The Chippewas open the season against Kentucky on Sept. 1 at Kroger Field. CMU also plays Kansas (Sept. 8), Maine (Sept. 22) and Michigan State (Sept. 29) in the nonconference.