Mount Pleasant — Jonathan Ward established himself as one of the premier running backs in the Mid-American Conference last season to earn second-team all-conference honors.
Ward, a 6-foot, 195-pound junior, put on 10 pounds during the offseason. He enters this season as a unanimous All-MAC first-team preseason selection, but he wants more — much more this season.
Ward started eight of Central Michigan’s 13 games last season and showed his ability during the final five games of the regular season when he rushed for 632 yards and seven touchdowns with a 7.6 yards-per-carry average.
“It was just a matter of the more carries you get the more you get into a groove and that’s what happened during the second half of the season. I just got the ball more and had more chances to make plays,” Ward said. “I feel like I’m a good all-around back where I can perform well inside, outside on the perimeter, downhill and my ability to catch the ball.
“I’ve put in a lot of work during the offseason to try and become a better pass catcher because you never know, you might need a game-winning catch and it may be me called to make that catch.
“The expectations that I have for myself is to just go out there and be a better player than I was last year. I just want to help us win the MAC championship. It was huge for us to win the Michigan MAC championship last year since we didn’t win it my freshman year. You have to win the Michigan MAC championship because without the Michigan trophy you can’t have the MAC trophy, so that’s one step closer to achieving our goals.”
Ward finished last season with 1,019 yards and 10 touchdowns, and can become Central Michigan’s first two-time 1,000-yard rusher since Jerry Seymour (2003-04).
Ward’s highlight was coming through with a 132-yard effort in a 35-28 comeback win over rival Western Michigan in Kalamazoo. The Chippewas scored 21 fourth-quarter points to wipe out a 28-14 deficit and he started the barrage with a 29-yard touchdown run.
“It was a rivalry game and we were down the majority of the game and came back and made it happen in the fourth,” Ward said. “It was kind of like a movie, you know with the rain and the mist and then stringing three touchdowns in that fourth quarter. The opportunities just presented themselves and I was trying to make the most out of it.”
Ward followed with a 159-yard effort and scored on a 79-yard run in a 42-30 win over Eastern Michigan.
Central Michigan lost the bulk of its offensive line, receivers in Corey Willis and tight end Tyler Conklin, and quarterback Shane Morris, but Ward feels the Chippewas have filled the holes.
“This O-line can be as good as any other O-line. People leave every year so it’s the next guy to step up and that’s how it’s always been,” Ward said. “I have complete faith in our O-line and they’re getting better day in and day out.
“We have some seniors coming back — Shakir (Carr), Steve Eipper, (Alex) Neering. We have a lot of players on the O-line who have experience and then we have some young guys who are stepping up and looking real good like (redshirt freshman) Jamezz Kimbrough, so we’ll be real good on the offensive side of the ball.”
Tony Poljan will start at quarterback after taking notes while working behind Cooper Rush and Morris his first two years.
“We took our unofficial (visit) together and being in the same class together I know he’s a competitor,” Ward said of Poljan. “He’ll do whatever it takes to win. His first two years he played wide receiver and what other quarterback will go out there and play wideout just to win? That’s what stands out the most for me on Tony.
“Tony can do whatever he wants. He can throw the ball 70 yards downfield or complete the mid-level pass, and we’re growing every day as we get to play with each other, the chemistry is getting stronger.”
And when asked if he felt pressure coming into the season as an All-MAC first-team preseason selection, Ward replied: “I don’t feel any pressure. I just have go out there and perform to the best of my ability. I feel as if I go out there and play each and every game to the best of my ability first-team All-MAC should be an underestimate.
“I feel I can be an All-American if I go out there and perform to my ability every game. It’s just a matter of staying healthy all season, but preseason achievements don’t mean nothing. All that matters is what you get after the season.”
Central Michigan coach John Bonamego can’t wait to see Ward perform this season.
“As good as he is, he’s a guy who always seems to get better,” Bonamego said. “He’s a fierce competitor. He’s one of the emerging leaders on this team and continues to impress me as far as his overall knowledge of our offense and how it works. He’s such a dynamic player with such a broad skill set and I’m excited to see what he can do this season.”
Scouting Central Michigan
Last season: 8-5 (6-2 MAC)
Coach: John Bonamego, fourth year (21-18, 15-9 MAC)
Outlook: The Chippewas are coming off a strong season that included a win over perennial MAC power Northern Illinois and a Power Five opponent (Kansas) for the second straight season (CMU beat Oklahoma State, 30-27, in 2016). Bonamego has a 1,000-yard rusher back in Johnathan Ward, but must replace a starting quarterback for the second straight year, with redshirt sophomore Tony Poljan set to run the offense. The strength of the team will be the front seven on defense, led by defensive ends Mike Danna and Mitch Stanitzek, along with linebacker Malik Fountain.
Top players: Jonathan Ward, Jr., RB, 1,019 yards, 10 TDs; Malik Fountain, Sr., LB, second-team All-MAC, team-high 89 tackles; Mike Danna, Jr., DE, 10 tackles vs. Syracuse; Tony Poljan, So., QB; Sean Bunting, Jr., CB, five interceptions; Shakir Carr, Sr., OL; Brandon Childress, Jr., WR; D’Andre Dill, Jr., DL; Jerrod Davis, Jr., KR.