Note: One in a series of previews of the Central Michigan football team as it prepares for its 2018 season opener at Kentucky on Sept. 1. Today: The running backs. Thursday: The receivers.
Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – The complementary nature of offensive football dictates that strength in one aspect triggers success in the other.
It’s Football 101: As defenses gear up to stop a successful passing game, they become vulnerable to the run game, and vice versa.
When it comes to game planning for Central Michigan in 2018, opponents are very likely to make stopping the run a high priority.
The Chippewas are deep, talented and experienced at the running back position, headlined by junior Jonathan Ward, who in 2017 became CMU’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2014 when he finished with 1,019 yards (a 5.7-yard-per-carry average) and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
Ward proved a year ago that he can catch it too, ranking second on the team with 48 receptions for 470 yards and three scores. Ward’s 114.5 all-purpose yards per game ranked third in the Mid-American Conference, and he earned Second Team All-MAC honors.
Ward heads into the 2018 season ranked as the 21st-best running back in the nation by The Sporting News, and the 36th best by Athlon Sports.
“Ward, he’s impressed me in terms of how he’s matured,” coach John Bonamego said. “Just in terms of how he has handled situations in practice and how he’s learning to kind of manage his emotions. I’ve seen a lot of maturity in him in the last eight-month period. He’s growing up.
“I think he’s kind of the bell cow in that room. Romello Ross and Kumehnnu Gwilly aren’t far behind.”
At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, Gwilly is 180 degrees from the 6-foot, 185-pound Ward. Gwilly’s game is more about between-the-tackles power, while Ward’s calling card is shiftiness, quickness and speed. If the Chippewas employed an old-fashioned 1970s grind-it-out offense, the pair would be a tailor made out-of-central-casting tailback/fullback combination.
Somewhere in the middle between Ward and Gwilly, both in size and style, is the 5-10, 200-pound Ross.
The numbers produced by Gwilly and Ross in ’17 were strikingly similar: Gwilly carried 53 times for 204 yards and two TDs; Ross rushed 54 times for 203 yards and one TD.
The Chippewas averaged 134.2 yards per game on the ground a year ago, ranking 10th in the MAC. That number was perhaps skewed by CMU’s commitment to the passing game (the Chippewas were fourth in the league in passing yards per game). That, and CMU was getting accustomed to then-first-year offensive coordinator Chris Ostrowsky’s uptempo no-huddle set.
The offense, the ground game in particular, became more consistently productive as the 2017 season progressed. Ward averaged 132 yards rushing over CMU’s final four regular-season games, all of them victories.
Picking up where they left off, and improving, is the goal heading into 2018, and a productive run game will do nothing but help as the Chippewas re-tool their passing game with a relatively inexperienced quarterback and receiving corps.
“We’re going to committed to doing what our guys do well,” Ostrowsky said. “From year to year the product always tweaks a bit and changes.”