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True freshman RB Lew Nichols hasn't been 'put on the shelf' despite four-game redshirt rule

Central Michigan running back Lew Nichols spends time at the Family Fun Fest before the open spring practice April 13, 2019, at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

Lew Nichols hasn't touched the field since Central Michigan's 17-12 loss to Miami on Sept. 21 at Hard Rock Stadium.

But that doesn't mean first-year coach Jim McElwain is going to bench the talented true freshman running back for the remainder of the 2019 season.

With senior and sophomore running backs Jonathan Ward and Kobe Lewis, respectively, performing well in recent games, there hasn't been a need for Nichols on the field.

When Ward went down with an injury in a 61-0 loss to Wisconsin in the second week of the season, Nichols was forced to assume the backup role to Lewis. Now that Ward is back on the field, Nichols stepped back to the third-string role.

In the last two games, victories over Eastern Michigan and New Mexico State, McElwain elected to use junior running back Kumehnnu Gwilly, the typical fourth-string back, rather than Nichols in fourth-quarter blowout situations.

Prior to the 2018 season, the NCAA announced a new redshirt rule that allows players to participate in a maximum of four games per year without losing a season of eligibility. 

For example, if Nichols doesn't play again in 2019, he will enter the 2020 season as a redshirt freshman from an athletic standpoint. If he plays in a fifth game, he will be a sophomore next year.

Even though Nichols has reached four games played, McElwain said the youngster might get snaps later in the 2019 season – thus burning his redshirt.

"We haven't put him on the shelf by any sense of the imagination," McElwain said. "We'll see where this goes a little bit as we get deeper into it. We are charting those (games played) to see where we are at later in the year."

Nichols has 19 carries for 89 yards this season. He ran the ball six times for 32 yards in the opener against Albany and seven times for 43 yards in a blowout win over Akron. His longest run went for 15 yards against the Zips.

McElwain said none of his players have asked for a redshirt like Houston quarterback D'Eriq King. 

The senior signal-caller for the Cougars was the cause of debate regarding the redshirt rule when he decided to sit out after his team started the season 1-3 overall – the program's worst since 2012.

King plans to return for the 2020 season, and it's allowed by the NCAA since he benched himself before playing in the fifth game. Houston wide receiver Keith Corbin did the same.

That hasn't been the case for the Chippewas.

"None of these guys have come in and said, 'Coach, I want to redshirt,'" McElwain said. "They're in it for the team. We'll do anything we can, as long as it's the best for the players."

McElwain understands the strategy behind the rule, as the former Michigan wide receivers coach watched head coach Jim Harbaugh deal with it in 2018.

"You try to be as strategic as you can without sacrificing putting your best players on the field," McElwain said. "I think every team in America has gone through that, and it's kind of become a roster management thing that you really didn't think about before. 

"It kind of makes it fun, to be honest with you."

Before the 2019 season, McElwain said Nichols was a player that would "obviously" get snaps for the Chippewas. 

The 5-foot-10, 220-pound running back turned down offers from Power Five schools like Kentucky, Missouri, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue when he committed and signed to join Central Michigan out of Cass Technical High School in Detroit.

Central Michigan running back Jonathan Ward runs past the New Mexico State defense Oct. 12 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

Ward's health

Since returning for Central Michigan in Week 5, Ward still hasn't got to the point where he's fully healthy. Two weeks following his comeback, McElwain said a small injury problem remains.

That hasn't stopped Ward.

"Jonathan is still not 100%," McElwain said. "I just love his toughness. He's given everything he's got for this football team."

Ward sustained a shoulder injury in Week 2 against Wisconsin, and it forced him to miss two full games. He could've sat out for the rivalry game against the Broncos but decided otherwise.

"He's beat up, and there's no doubt about it," McElwain said. "Yet, he doesn't blink. He doesn't come to practice in a red jersey. He wants to make sure he's out there with his teammates. I can't say enough about him."

As for Lewis, the backup to Ward, he's stepped up to create a dynamic one-two punch in the backfield. 

In the recent 42-28 win against New Mexico State at Kelly/Shorts Stadium, Lewis carried the ball 23 times for 161 yards and two touchdowns, while Ward ran 18 times for 145 yards and one touchdown. He also compiled four receptions for 36 yards.

"Kobe knows he has a ton of talent, as well," McElwain said. "I'm proud of the way those guys have played off each other, and they're excited for each other when they are injured. That's something really good football teams do."