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Behind Kobe Lewis and Lew Nichols, CMU looking to build depth from within at running back

Central Michigan running back Kobe Lewis runs through the Miami defense Sept. 21 at Hard Rock Stadium (Courtesy of CMU Athletics)

In its 2020 recruiting class, Central Michigan reeled in a trio of high profile running back recruits. The group of Jordon Ingram, Myles Bailey and Marion Lukes were expected to come in as freshmen and contribute to help fill the void left by graduated senior Jonathan Ward. 

However, due to the coronavirus pandemic and the initial cancellation of the Mid-American Conference football season, the trio did not come to campus in the fall. They grayshirted and will join the team in January in preparation for the 2021 season. 

Until then, the Chippewas and coach Jim McElwain will be forced to make do with what they have. Currently, just two scholarship members of the team, junior Kobe Lewis and redshirt freshman Lew Nichols, are listed as running backs on the roster. A third, redshirt freshman Josh Crawford, has opted-out of the season. 

McElwain has also improvised with the remainder of his roster to help combat that lack of depth. True freshman Zahir Swann has been moved to running back from his position as a slot receiver. Speaking with reporters on Oct. 12, McElwain praised Swann and the versatility he brings in the backfield. 

"He brings, actually, a little bit of a new dynamic," McElwain said. "(He's) kind of a new toy back there." 

Swann, who comes to CMU from Irvington, New Jersey, contributed 850 all-purpose yards as a senior in high school. He split time there as a running back and receiver but was primarily a wideout. However, he's listed at 5-foot-8 and that size element could make it difficult for him to contribute out wide. 

That won't stop him from providing something to the offense. 

It seems likely that Swann will slide back to his position in the slot when the Bailey, Ingram and Lukes join the team in January. Yet, a good performance or two could solidify his spot in the backfield. There are little doubts about his speed and athleticism, which are two essential traits for running backs to have. 

Swann will likely be the third running back. Lewis, after breaking out as a supplement to Ward last season, will get the reigns to the run game from the start. Nichols, meanwhile, carried the ball 19 times in four games before missing the rest of the season to preserve his eligibility. McElwain mentioned using Swann as a "changeup" back. 

"What I'm hoping to do is use (Lewis and Nichols) similar to what we did with Jonathan (and Lewis)," McElwain said. "With Kobe taking the bulk of it, obviously." 

McElwain also hinted at the Chippewas finding options in the run game through their crossover periods in practice. He didn't give away names but hinted that there are packages in the works that would allow defenses to see different people with the football. One name to watch is linebacker Kuhmennu Gwilly, who played running back for the Chippewas in his first three seasons.

Despite a lack of rostered names, there are clear options at the disposal at McElwain and running backs coach Cornell Jackson. 

"There isn't one of the guys that didn't really play running back at some point in their career, be it in high school or whatever," McElwain said. "We've actually discovered some guys that we might actually be able to use in some situations."