Central Michigan spring football: Can Jonathan Ward return to his 1,000-yard rushing days?
This is the second of a series of nine Central Michigan position group previews entering spring football practice, which begins March 19. Today's edition focuses on the running backs. For more, check back with Central Michigan Life over the next week.
Quarterbacks – March 4
Running backs – March 4
Wide receivers – March 5
Tight ends – March 5
Offensive line – March 6
Defensive line – March 6
Linebackers – March 7
Defensive backs – March 7
Special teams – March 8
While the quarterback position received the most attention a season ago due to the lack of possessing a consistently solid pass-thrower, the running back position may have been the biggest disappointment.
The reason being — Jonathan Ward.
The current senior tailback broke out in a big way over his sophomore season and was expected to return as the star for CMU's offense as a junior.
Instead, he couldn't find the end zone but once.
While the quarterback and offensive line problems didn't exactly open any running lanes for Ward, he was inconsistent the entire season. It seemed as if the moment he got his bell rung against Kentucky, the former 1,000-yard rusher could never get back on track.
While other names like senior Romello Ross and junior Kumehnnu Gwilly made an impact at the position, they could only do so much. The Chippewas ranked 10th in the Mid-American Conference and 116th in all of NCAA Division I football with a total of 1,442 rushing yards on 447 attempts over 13 games.
Of those 1,442 yards, 720 of those yards came between quarterbacks Tony Poljan and Tommy Lazzaro.
To find more success in the 2019 season, CMU must find a better rushing attack, which will only benefit every other problem the Chippewa offense had in 2018.
How far did Ward fall off?
When CMU began on its five-game winning streak back in 2017 to end the regular season, Ward started to turn up his game.
In those five games, the Kankakee, Illinois native earned three 100-yard rushing games and totaled 625 yards on the ground on 84 carries. Before those games, Ward's only 100-yard rushing contest was against Rhode Island (147 yards) to open the season.
For the season, Ward accumulated 1,017 rushing yards and 10 rushing scores. As the season went along he also became one of former CMU transfer quarterback Shane Morris' favorite targets, grabbing 48 receptions for 470 yards and three touchdowns.
In the 2018 Idaho Potato Bowl, he showed no signs of stopping that pass-catching groove with 109 yards on seven receptions and a score. He also added 29 yards and a rushing touchdown on the ground against the Cowboys.
Nothing seemed it could go wrong until it did.
In 2018, Ward struggled to find success through the air or on the ground. He rushed for a measly 212 yards on 76 attempts (2.9 yards per carry) and scored just once on the season in eight games. His receiving numbers took a severe drop to just 41 yards on eight catches. He battled injuries and could never get back on track.
It's not just ironic that CMU had more success when Ward was a weapon out of the Chippewas backfield in 2017. He makes this group go and has the ability to be a star in the MAC. He needs talent around him to free him up and get out in space, which is where he is at his best.
But having a talent like Ward simply can't get slipped under the rug as it did in 2018.
Returning depth at the position
When Ward wasn't able to go or simply not playing well, former CMU coach John Bonamego turned to Gwilly and Ross for the most part in the run game.
Both will return for the 2019 season. Ross led the team in rushing with 402 yards in 89 rushing attempts (4.5 yards per carry) and added a pair of scores over eight games. The 5-foot-10, 211-pound junior had a season-high 111 yards on 14 carries in a 24-23 loss to Ball State.
Gwilly would come in to change the pace for CMU's offense, as Ross essentially took over the main role. The 6-foot-2, 246-pound back rushed for a total of 296 yards on 81 attempts and played in all 12 games. His lone touchdown came on the ground against Kentucky to open the season.
While Poljan will be moving over to tight end from his former quarterback position, don't be surprised if he takes direct snaps this season. The 6-foot-7, 235-pound quarterback was known for simply using his body size to break tackles and fall forward for positive yards. He gained 258 yards on 64 carries with a score last season.
With Ward checking in at 6-foot, 202 pounds, the ideal scenario was for him to do the work with his speed around the edges and Gwilly and Ross to earn the tough yardage in the trenches. Coming into the 2019 campaign, it would be hard to picture anything different.
When it comes to players who could break onto the scene for the first time in 2019, Lew Nichols III tops the list.
The Cass Tech High School graduate was rated a three-star prospect by the 247Sports Composite and was ranked No. 28 at the running back position in Michigan. Nichols, who was a three-year varsity starter, ran for 1,078 yards on 84 carries while adding 23 touchdowns as a senior.
Nichols enrolled early, meaning he started classes at CMU in December and is already gelling with teammates in Mount Pleasant.
Joining Nichols as a true freshman is tailback Joshua Crawford. The two-star running back rushed for over 1,600 yards and tallied 20 touchdowns as a three-year starter for Montclair High School.