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Reflecting on career, chatting with J.K. Dobbins and playing in NFLPA Collegiate Bowl: Jonathan Ward prepares for another test

Jonathan Ward and J.K. Dobbins don't talk much about football.

One running back comes from the Mid-American Conference; the other is from a team in the Big Ten that finished with a 13-1 record.

Ohio State's only loss came against Clemson, 29-23, in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Dobbins had 18 carries for 174 yards and one touchdown.

Central Michigan had a much different season at 8-6 overall, but Ward – at the forefront of the nationally recognized turnaround under first-year coach Jim McElwain – ran 183 times for 1,108 yards and 15 touchdowns in a two-man backfield.

Ward and Dobbins, even if one is more of a sure bet than the other, have the same goal: to be selected in the 2020 NFL Draft. 

Both players train in Miami at Bommarito Performance Systems, a facility that has helped develop Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, Jordan Howard, Frank Gore, Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy and other NFL running backs.

"We workout in different groups but do the same things," Ward said. "We bypass each other and talk in our downtime at the facilities."

When Ward has free time, he gravitates toward Dobbins. They engage in "guy talk" on most occasions and rarely discuss football, but Ward made sure to ask about going up against Michigan defensive end Mike Danna, a former Chippewa, in Ohio State's 56-27 victory in Ann Arbor. 

Dobbins had 31 carries for 211 yards and four touchdowns.

"The little football talk we had was about 10 guys we knew and had played against," Ward said. "He asked about the hardest game I've played."

And as Ward walked off the field at Dreamstyle Stadium following a 48-11 loss to San Diego State in the New Mexico Bowl, there were no more college games left to be played.

"I was all over the place," he said.

Ward finished with 473 carries for 2,544 yards and 28 touchdowns along with 98 receptions for 909 yards and four scores.

A few days later, already back to his hometown of Kankakee, Illinois, Ward reflected on his time as a Chippewa with his mother, Jaymi Brooks. He received praise from the members of his community for his leadership role in taking the program from 1-11 in 2018 to an appearance in the Mid-American Conference championship game and New Mexico Bowl one year later.

"We were that team that came out of nowhere and made a name for ourselves," Ward said. "This was one of the better seasons in the last decade."

Spanning 42 games in four seasons, Ward has learned to run the ball with authority, catch passes in the slot and out of the backfield, return kicks, throw passes on trick plays and, most importantly, rid himself of selfishness to become a better teammate.

Even offensive coordinator Charlie Frye, who has only been around the program for 13 months, noticed a change in Ward's attitude.

"He understands that it ain't about him," Frye said. "It's about his teammates. That's the growth I see."

Ward wants to be remembered at Central Michigan for his resiliency.

"Just being able to bounce back," Ward said, "and being a part of a blue-collar program. Hopefully, I can be known as one of the greater running backs that came from Central."

The next step for Ward to achieve his goal of making it to the NFL is participating in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, an all-star game for draft-eligible players.

He accepted his invitation Dec. 5, locking himself in for yet another challenge.

Tough tasks are nothing new for Ward, who had to walk his own path beginning as a youth football player in Kankakee.

"This guy's toughness is unquestioned," McElwain said. "It's so important to him, this football team, and I think it shows."

The Collegiate Bowl takes place at 7 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, but there's an added week of events prior to the game. Along with showcasing themselves to NFL scouts and coaches, the players get a chance to learn the business and lifestyle aspect of being a professional.

Ward plans to get in touch with McElwain, Frye, running backs coach Cornell Jackson and former coach John Bonamego for advice on how to prepare.

Because of his ability to run, catch and be active in the return game, Ward believes he's one of the most versatile running backs in the draft class and has a chance to be selected, but he doesn't want to look too far ahead.

"I just take it day-by-day," Ward said. "I'm not putting all my eggs in one basket to say I'm going to get drafted, but it's a blessing to be in the conversation and working to make it a reality.

"If I'm not working, someone is going to pass me up."