'I never left': Running back Jonathan Ward prepares for redemption season

Central Michigan running back Jonathan Ward finishes putting his helmet on during fall camp Aug. 19 at the East Grass Practice Field.

Time was ticking at Waldo Stadium on Nov. 1, 2017. The Central Michigan football team trailed rival Western Michigan, 28-14. 

Graduate transfer quarterback Shane Morris was the man under center, and he was piecing together a decent outing in one of the oldest Mid-American Conference rivalries – the battle for the Victory Cannon.

Things looked dire for the Chippewas, and they needed a spark. 

That glimmer of hope came from then-sophomore running back Jonathan Ward. He carried the ball 29 yards to the end zone with 9:13 left in the game, cutting CMU's deficit to one score.

The rest, as many say, was history. The Chippewas scored 21 unanswered points and defeated the rival Broncos, 35-28.

Ward had an exceptional season in 2017, leading the team in rushing with 1,019 yards on 178 carries and 10 touchdowns. He also hauled in 48 passes for 470 yards and three scores, appearing in all 13 games.

But his 2018 season was down, statistically speaking. Ward totaled 76 carries for 212 yards and just one touchdown in the nine games he played in, adding eight receptions and 41 passing yards. 

Injuries played a critical role in Ward's season, and if you were to ask Ward, none of that matters now.

"I would say I never left, honestly," Ward said. "Last season is last season and that's how it played out. Getting back together as a team and playing as one helps me expose my abilities.

"In terms of getting back to where I was, I never left. It was just a tough season." 

With the 2019 season in the forefront, Ward is healthy and ready to go as part of the revitalized offense under first-year coach Jim McElwain. 

Because Ward is a senior, and McElwain is entering his maiden voyage as the Chippewas' head man, the latter understands he may not know the truth behind what happened in Ward's past. However, McElwain has liked what he's seen from Ward thus far, referring to him as a "three-down back," meaning he can run, go out and catch a pass or stay back and block. 

"He's been a great teammate," McElwain said of Ward. "He's attacked the weight room, been a leader and could be a real voice so far. He's a real special player and he needs to see touches."

The entire running back room is explosive, and it's deep. Romello Ross, Kumehnnu Gwilly and Kobe Lewis all add a significant amount of skill and make the CMU run game a serious threat. Ward's upbringing from the Chicago area has helped him take great care of his teammates both on and off the field. He understands family and what it means to win at all costs.

(From left to right) Romello Ross, Kobe Lewis, Jonathan Ward, Thaddeus Cornick, Kumehnnu Gwilly, Josh Crawford, Lew Nichols, Charles Highbaugh and running backs coach Cornell Jackson pose for a picture during Central Michigan football media day Aug. 16 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

Yet, new offensive coordinator Charlie Frye said that Ward has shown himself as the leader in the running back room.

"He's worked his butt off," Frye said of Ward. "He's showed leadership, if someone doesn't get it right, he'll go back and show them so he's taking double reps on things just to get it right. He knows that if he can get 10 other guys to play at their highest level, it makes his job a little bit easier.

"His effort on the practice field, weight room, film, it's all been very impressive." 

That effort has trickled down throughout the other running backs on the CMU roster. Ward said that he has taken Lewis and newcomer Lew Nichols under his wing as he heads into his final season in Mount Pleasant. 

For this season, the CMU offense is running a run-pass option/spread scheme. Ward said that the offense is poised to do well and could spark excitement this season.

"I think it fits my playing style well," Ward said. "I'm excited to see what it does."

Ward's ability to go out and catch the football will help him significantly. He had been working with the wide receivers during fall camp to improve his catching ability, which will make him even more of a threat out of the backfield for the 12 defenses on the Chippewas' schedule. 

"I've been working in the offseason to become more of a dual-threat player," Ward said. "Trying to take that to the next level and working a lot with (wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton), he's been helping me get into the rhythm of being a wide receiver and how to read coverages."

Revenge or redemption can sometimes be overplayed or overstated in sports, especially football. The program is rebounding from the 1-11 season in 2018, and Ward seems to be the guy leading the charge.

While last season took a toll on him and the rest of the team, Ward said that there was a lot of hard work and growth last season that will help change the culture. He also said that no one should sleep on CMU because of its record last season.

"They see us as an easy win, but that makes it easier for us to give them competition for four quarters," Ward said. "We've been more willing to work with one another.

"We know nothing is guaranteed, so you've got to put in the time to get what you want."