MAC Media Day: Jonathan Ward continues growth as both player and person entering third season

Central Michigan running back Jonathan Ward speaks to reporters at MAC Media Day at Ford Field on July 24.

Jonathan Ward isn't much of a talker. 

However, that calm demeanor doesn't reflect the Central Michigan running back's tendencies on the football field.  

"I definitely let everyone know, whether it's a Mid-American Conference team or not, that I was the better running back out there at the end of the day," Ward said. 

It's that type of attitude that's given Ward a greater sense of exposure at the national level, coming off of a 2017 campaign in which he became the first Chippewa to rush for over 1,000 yards in a single-season since Thomas Rawls four years ago. 

Ward's breakout year as a sophomore not only earned him first-team All-MAC honors by Athlon Sports back in May, he also joined senior middle linebacker Malik Fountain as the faces of CMU at the league's Media Day event Tuesday inside Ford Field. 

Ask Ward back in the summer of 2016 when he arrived in Mount Pleasant if everything that he's experienced so far this offseason would come to fruition and he'd be the first to say that being an important asset to the program alone is a distinction in of itself.  

"I'm still amazed and surprised that I'm here," Ward said. "Two years ago, I didn't know if whether or not I was going to play college football, let alone represent a Division I program at Media Day."

Not too long ago, Ward was fighting for playing time his freshman season, missing action in four games, only to tally four 100-yard single-game performances in 2017, leading the Chippewas to their third consecutive bowl game under head coach John Bonamego. 

Bonamego didn't have to watch Ward's production last season to know the kind of athleticism the Illinois native possesses. The realization came way before Ward signed his letter of intent, who finished his senior year at Bishop McNamara as the career record holder for touchdowns (83) and rushing yards (5,689). 

"Jonathan can be whatever he wants to be," Bonamego said. "He's a very talented player and we knew that when we recruited him. He's always been very, very tough, a hard worker and holds a skill set that makes him special."

The growth issued by Bonamego remains strong as Ward fully understand his increased role in the spread offense come August. There's an assumption that Ward will be relied on more following the departure of key go-to guys at wide out, leaving him as one of four returning starters from last season. 

Three years at Central Michigan for Ward marks the debut of yet another fresh face playing quarterback. As Shane Morris moves forward in his career after bridging the gap between Cooper Rush and Tony Poljan, the latter will finally see the offense revolve around him. 

Both Ward and Poljan were apart of the 2016 class that ranked sixth in the MAC, so questions of chemistry can be thrown out, as the pair took advantage of the offseason to work on timing and precision. 

"Tony is a competitor," Ward said. "Everyone saw him lining up among the wide receivers last season. I know that he'll never give up on us in a game and I don't have to worry about him breaking down. He's willing to fight until the very last play and I'll be right there by his side."

Another name close to Ward's circle is veteran ball carrier Devon Spalding, who after missing out on much of 2017 due to injury, makes his way back to the Chippewas for a fifth and final go-around. 

"Devon is one hell of a player," Ward said. "He's always been that leader in showing me the in's and out's of being a running back. I can never learn too much from him as he's one of those players who knows everything about the game. Devon really is a huge influence for me."

Outside of Ward and Spalding, much of the running back corp from last season that grew accustomed to the spread after years of a pro-style system returns, including Romello Ross and Kumehnnu Gwilly. The group combined for 454 attempts and 1,743 yards and 19 touchdowns.  

If the team elects to go with a run by committee mentality again with certain individuals getting more time than others, that's fine for someone like Ward, who's making more of an effort to learn  the in's and out's of other positions. 

That versatility in not just being able to play running back, but wide receiver or another skill position as well, can only further boost his dependability on an offense that finished 77th in the country in total yards last season.   

"I've always had that expectation of playing to the best of my ability," Ward said. "The same goes for my coaches. That doesn't mean I don't recognize and live up to what's being published in the preseason rankings, but honestly, I just go out there and play like I've been playing."

One preseason recognition that Ward was absent from was the Doak Walker Watch List, given annually to the top running back in college football, in honor of the former Heisman Trophy winner and two-time NFL champion. 

Ward shrugged off his knowing of being left off the 62-man list as it's another log to the fire.

"Nothing has really changed because I continue to do the same thing every day of my life," Ward said. "The wanting of success on the field has always been there. The hard work and dedication that I put forward every time I step out there isn't new."

As for the preseason buzz from other mediums, Ward understands the potential disappointment of not living up to early expectations while also refusing to make future 100-yard games more hype than it actually is, churning it into more of a requirement than accomplishment.

"I'm improving as a player, a man and student of the game," Ward said. "I want to be smarter, faster, bigger and stronger than I did last year."