Healthy and happy, Jonathan Ward racking up the yards for upstart Central Michigan

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Central Michigan's Jonathan Ward

Mt. Pleasant — Jonathan Ward had high expectations for himself and Central Michigan after rushing for 1,000 yards to help the Chippewas to an 8-5 record in 2017.

At the time, he said, "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, Ward didn’t stay healthy in 2018, resulting in a year to forget, rushing for just 212 yards or less than 3 yards a carry as Central finished 1-11 and winless in Mid-American Conference play, leading to the firing of John Bonamego.

Jim McElwain replaced Bonamego as head coach, and told Ward he had a clean slate and Ward has responded by making his senior year so far a memorable one, helping the Chippewas to a 5-3 record (3-1 MAC) heading into Saturday’s game at defending MAC East champion Buffalo.

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Ward has put together four consecutive 100-yard games and has now rushed for 661 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 7.1 yards per carry.

It would be safe to say the 6-foot, 200-pound Ward has enjoyed his best three-game stretch in which he has run for 393 yards (51 carries) and six touhdowns during Central's current three-game winning streak, averaging 7.8 yards a carry.

Ward’s workload has been lessened with sophomore Kobe Lewis getting his share of carries, rushing for 364 yards (50 carries) the last three weeks while the Chippewas have averaged 40.7 points, 542 total yards, including 305 on the ground.

“It’s always good to have a 1-2 punch,” Ward said. “Kobe is an excellent athlete, just a dynamic player and is just going to get better as time goes on. Just watching him develop from last year to this year has been an amazing thing to see.”

Ward isn’t talking All-America after knowing how fragile things can go after getting banged up last season and missing three games.

Central Michigan's Jonathan Ward

Ward is just happy to be healthy and contributing, helping the Chippewas to one of the nation’s biggest turnarounds.

“Last year was last year and I try not to think about it, at time the adversity in my life and all of our lives here at Central is just something that we had to overcome to get to where we want to go,” Ward said.

“Obviously, the injuries weren’t something that I wanted, but it’s a part of the game so I handled it the best way that I could and moved forward. It’s a good feeling to be healthy, that’s something that I’ve always asked for from God, to play another game, play another down and I’m just taking it game by game and giving it my all.

“When Coach (McElwain) came in, the first thing he did was ask how can he help us? He just let me know that everyone had a clean slate, told us what the expectations of the program were and how he was very excited to be here to help us grow and mature. He just told us to do the right thing, give it your all and everything else will come along.”

Ward feels the coaching staff has done a good job.

“I feel like we’re more of a unit as one, Coach (Mike) Cummings does a great job with the O line, Coach (Charlie) Frye is an outstanding OC, Coach Mac adds his stuff to it and Coach (Kevin) Barbay is helping the wide receivers understand that in order to make the run game successful, the wide receivers have to be able to block downfield and just the small things like that take us to the next level," he said.

More: MAC notes: Central Michigan controls fate in MAC West title race

That next level would be for the Chippewas winning the MAC West championship for the right to play for their first conference championship in 10 years at Ford Field in the first weekend in December.

But for that to happen the Chippewas will need to first beat a Buffalo team that ranks No. 1 in the MAC in stopping the run, allowing just 95.3 yards or 2.8 per carry.

“We just prepare, don’t look at things like that,” Ward said of going up against Buffalo’s defense. “Statistics and stuff like that doesn’t play a factor to us. We just have to go and give it our best shot, just give me the ball and I’m just running.”

Ward is on pace to becoming the first Central running back to be a multiple 1,000-yard back since Jerry Seymour in 2003-04.

So, how has Ward been able to have a bounce back season?

“It’s all about preparation, we’ve been preparing a lot harder this year so that makes the game situations a lot easier,” Ward said. “We couldn’t be doing this all without the O linemen and we give them credit for every single yard. It’s all about the chemistry.

"When you have guys that want to block for their running backs, that’s just what makes it even more special, that’s what makes those five-yard runs into 50 yard runs is just having guys that want to be able to block for you and wanting you have to have as much success as you want to have for yourself and it’s just having that brotherly bond with the O-linemen.”

By the numbers

Jonathan Ward's career stats at CMU:

2016: 36 carries, 200 yards, 5.6 average, 2 TDs

2017: 176 carries, 1,019 yards, 5.7 average, 10 TDs

2018: 76 carries, 212 yards, 2.8 average, 1 TD

2019: 93 carries, 661 yards, 7.1 average, 8 TDs

Stacking up

How Ward compares in average per carry with players rushing for 660 or more yards:

► 1. Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma, 8.4 (705 yards, 10 TDs)

► 2. Travis Etienne, Clemson, 8.0 (781, 6)

► 3. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis, 7.3 (830, 8)

► 4. J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State, 7.1 (947, 7)

► 5. Jonathan Ward, Central Michigan, 7.1 (661, 8)