Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – You take a high-profile recruit with the tools and the pedigree, add a transfer from the prominent program down the road in Ann Arbor.
It’s the perfect recipe to get a hundred yards worth of speculation and questions, and to keep the Twitter-sphere fires burning hot.
The question has been raised since the 2016 season ended and Cooper Rush played his final game in a Central Michigan uniform, ending a fabulous career during which he established himself as one of the very best quarterbacks in the program’s 125-year history.
Just who will start at quarterback when the Chippewas open the 2017 season on Aug. 31 against Rhode Island at Kelly/Shorts Stadium?
The battle has essentially come down to redshirt freshman Tony Poljan and graduate student Shane Morris. Junior Tommy Lazzaro and Austin Hergott, another redshirt freshman, are also in the mix.
The 6-foot-7 Poljan was the crowning jewel of coach John Bonamego’s first recruiting class at CMU in February, 2016. Poljan’s father, Rick, was a standout offensive lineman at CMU from 1983-86 – he and Bonamego were teammates at CMU – and the younger Poljan emerged from Lansing Catholic High School, the same prep program that produced Rush, with more than 9,000 career passing yards and 116 touchdown passes on his resumé.
Poljan chose CMU after considering several other offers, including some from Big Ten schools that had hinted at a position change. The ties to CMU and Bonamego didn’t hurt, either.
“My dad always said that Bono was a straight-up guy, a great coach, and an even better person,” Poljan said. “Growing up I heard a lot about Central – and how bad Western (Michigan) is. Growing up as a Chippewa it really helped my decision. Ultimately I wanted to play quarterback and follow my dreams.”
Poljan spent the 2016 season as one of Rush’s understudies – Hergott and Lazzaro were also on the roster – and that experience proved invaluable, Poljan said.
“Cooper is crazy smart, so I learned a lot about how to be a leader and really how to read the defenses,” Poljan said.
Morris took a different route. He came out of a football factory at De La Salle High School which competes in the uber-competitive Catholic High School League in suburban Detroit.
The left-handed Morris signed with Michigan, where made two starts in four seasons, and never really lived up to the promise he seemed to possess coming out of high school. He fully and freely admits that his time, on the field, in Ann Arbor wasn’t what he necessarily expected or hoped for when he signed with the Wolverines.
Still, he has no regrets, and he is looking forward rather than back.
“I loved it there,” said Morris, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management from U-M in April and is enrolled in grad school at CMU. “To be able to say I graduated from the No. 1 public university in the world, it was an unbelievable time.”
Part of the draw to CMU was a level of familiarity for Morris, whose high school coach, Paul Verska, serves on Bonamego’s staff. Two other De La Salle alums, cornerback Josh Cox and defensive lineman Mike Danna, are also on the Chippewa roster.
There are differences, of course, from U-M to CMU, from the Big Ten to the MAC.
“(Teammates) talk about how Central was their only Division I offer, and you don’t really get that at Michigan,” Morris said. “But (my CMU teammates) are some of the best football players I’ve seen in college. It’s that blue-collar attitude, that grit, they’re really trying to prove somebody wrong.
“That’s what I’m doing. I’m kind of in the same boat. I had a little different path to this, but I’m kind of in the same position – trying to prove people wrong and trying to work as hard as I can, be the best quarterback I can for this team, make it to the next level.”
All of the quarterbacks, along with everybody else on the roster, are learning the spread offense that was installed by first-year offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Chris Ostrowsky, who came to CMU after five years at Division II Northern Michigan, where his offenses averaged nearly 400 yards and 32 points per game over the last two seasons combined.
It’s a departure from the pro-style set the Chippewas have employed in the recent past.
“I ran the spread at Lansing Catholic and I would say I feel more comfortable in the spread than the pro-style offense,” Poljan said.
No matter what you call it, no offense can succeed without a capable triggerman making the right decisions, and then executing.
“They’re battling and they’re sharing reps and they’re doing the things that quarterbacks do that are competing,” Ostrowsky said. “I’m proud of both guys and we’ll see the way that it plays out. It’s about processing information, not turning the football over and scoring touchdowns.
“The guy that does that the best is going to be the quarterback.”