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What you need to know about the 2018 Central Michigan Chippewas

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Mt. Pleasant is a lovely place to be in the fall, and if there’s anything we know about the Chippewas, they’ll be entertaining.

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Boston College Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

CMU has been a tough team to beat recently.

That’s no joke, it’s a legitimate observation. The Chippewas have only really been blown-out a handful of times in the last few seasons and they’ve found ways to grab seemingly impossible wins from the jaws of defeat, often overperforming expectations.

While the Chips haven’t won the MAC outright since 2009, they’re well on their way to re-establishing themselves as a player in the MAC West, which has been going back and forth between rival Western, Northern Illinois and Toledo over the past decade.

THis year will be a bit of a rebuilding year, with 2019 seemingly the target year for Coach John Bonamego and his crew, but if you’re loking for a MAC team to jump aboard the bandwagon for, the 2018 CMU squad might be an entertaining team to follow.


Stadium: Kelly/Shorts Stadium

James H. Jimenez
  • Built in 1972 and originally named for CMU alum and influencer R. Perry Shorts (1900), who was a local banker. CMU won the national championship just two years after it was established. In 1983, the Board of Trustees added the name of former CMU coach Kenneth Kelly to the stadium, giving it its current nickname.
  • Capacity: 30,255
  • Surface: Artificial FieldTurf
  • Last renovation: 2006, when the schol added permanent stadium lights. They were the last MAC school to do so.

Schedule

Sat., Sept. 1 at Kentucky (ESPNU) 3:30 p.m.

Sat., Sept. 8 vs. Kansas (ESPN+) 3:00 p.m.

Sat., Sept. 15 at NIU (TBA) 3:00 p.m.

Sat., Sept. 22 vs. Maine (TBA)

Sat., Sept. 29 at Michigan State (TBA)

Sat., Oct. 6 vs. Buffalo (TBA)

Sat., Oct. 13 vs. Ball State (TBA)

Sat., Oct. 20 vs. Western Michigan (TBA) 3:00 p.m.

Sat., Oct. 27 at Akron (TBA)

Sat., Nov. 3 at Eastern Michigan (ESPN3) 12:00 p.m.

Sat., Nov. 10 vs. Bolwing Green (ESPN+) 3:00 p.m.

Fri., Nov. 23 at Toledo (TBA)


Head coach

John Bonamego (21-18 overall, 15-9 MAC)

Third year at Central, third year as head coach overall

Presbyterian v Central Michigan Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Prior to his return to Mt. Pleasant, where he was a quarterback and wide receiver from 1984-1987, Bonamego was a well-respected veteran in the NFL coaching ranks, spanning 16 years as a special teams coach for several NFL teams, including Jacksonville (twice), Miami, New Orleans (twice), Green Bay and Detroit.

In his first stop at Jacksonville, Bonamego helped overlook one of the best special teams units in the NFL in 1999, as the Jaguars advanced all the way to the AFC Championship game, an incredible feat for an expansion squad.

In his first stop in New Orleans, Bomanego’s special teams unit was responsible for the Steve Gleason blocked punt return touchdown in the Saints’ first game back at the Superdome post-Hurrican Katrina.

Bonamego was also on staff in Miami when the Dolphins went from a league-worse 1-15 to AFC East champions at 11-5 in 2008, molding a young specialst staff into some of the best at their positions in the NFL, including Tedd Ginn Jr., who became the first player in 42 years to return two kick return touchdowns in a single quarter.

Soon after taking the head coaching position, Coach Bono, as he is affectionately known, announced he was diagnosed with tonsil cancer and would be undergoing treatment, which he completed in August of 2015.

Under Coach Bono, the Chips have made three bowl games in three years and notched at least one top-25 upset (vs. Oklahoma State in 2016) and several wins over P5 squads.


Key Players

Jonathan Ward, running back

6-foot even, 202 lbs.

HS: Bishop McNamara; Kankakee, Illinois

Presbyterian v Central Michigan Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Jonathan Ward was a revelation in 2017, boosting a Chippewa rushing attack whihc was considered one of the worst in the country the previous season.

After coming out of fall camps as the #2 back behind Devon Spalding (who has since converted to receiver,) Ward got his chance to shine vs. Rhode Island after Spalding was injured earlier in the game, helping the Chippewas seal a close OT victory vs. the FCS squad. Ward solidified his spot on the roster after an impressive showing vs. Kansas and never relinquished the starting position.

This season will see Ward as CMU’s lynchpin on the offensive side of the ball on an offense which will largely be rebuilding at the specialty poisitions. Teams would be wise to try and contain Ward, as he led the team in rushing yards (990), touches (166) and touchdowns (9) while also placing thuird on the team in receptions (41), fourth in receiving yards (361) and finished highest on the team in total touchdowns (11.)

That’ll be easier said than done, however. Ward, a slim athletic runner, has a knack for knowing when to make the right cut and has a pro-ready shiftiness and field vision which makes him a danger in open space. His first step is also extremely advanced for a rising junior, which will keep opposing defenses on their toes.


Tony Poljan, quarterback

6-foot-7, 235 lbs.

HS: Lansing Catholic; Lansing, Michigan

Central Michigan v Boston College Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Tony Poljan was amuch-coveted four-star prospect coming out of in-state powerhouse Lansing Catholic HS, with several offers from Big Ten schools as a tight end, but Coach Bono was able to snag the young athlete in his first full-term recruiting period after offering him as a quarterback.

After taking a redshirt in his freshman season, Poljan backed up Michigan transfer Shane Morris in 2017 and saw the field primarily as a receiver due to injuries to the position midseason. There isn’t really a great sample size to glean insight from of Poljan as a college quarterback prospect, but at Lansing Catholic, he was regarded as one of the better dual-threat quarterbacks in the state. Poljan threw for 6,090 yards and 58 touchdowns and ran for 3,118 yards and 58 touchdowns in his career, good enough to make him the 17th-rated prospect in the state by the Detroit Free Press.

Poljan won the starting job fairly early in spring and fall camps and never looked back, so his development in the offseason will be pivotal to CMU’s success early on.


Sean Bunting, cornerback

6-foot-1, 182 lbs.

HS: Chippewa Valley; Macomb, Michigan

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Bunting has seen a lot of action since his true freshman campaign and took over one of the starting corner positions in 2017, running away with his opportunity opposite Amari Coleman, who is currently with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Bunting will take over CB1 duties in 2018, and if last season was any indication, he’s more than ready to fill Coleman’s shoes and lead a young secondary into battle.

Bunting had five interceptions in the final four games of the season to finish second on the team on ten passes defended (tied for the team lead) with five pass breakups (tied for second) and 46 tackles. While Bunting didn’t land on the 2017 All-MAC squad, two of his CMU bretheren did, which bodes nothing but good news for projecting Bunting’s potential success.


Malik Fountain, middle linebacker

6-foot-2, 230 lbs.

HS: Rich Central; Chicago, Illinois

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Oklahoma State Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Fountain, along with battery mate Alex Briones, led one of the MAC’s most chaotic defenses to major success in 2017 thanks to an unrivaled nose for the ball and tackling ability.

Fountain, in partcular, is a fantastic run-stopper. He led the Chippewas with 89 total tackles (55 solo to tie for first on the team) while adding on 2.5 tackles-for-loss and two breakups and made the All-MAC Second Team in 2017. And that was considered a down year in comparison to his previous season.

In 2016, Fountain had 92 tackles, including 10 takcles-for-loss, a forced fumble and two interceptions (including one returned for a touchdown,) good enough to land on the All-MAC FIrst Team. This season, Athlon Sports named Fountain to it’s preseason All-MAC First Team, showing a great potential for success.


Offensive Scheme

Style: run-based spread

Coordinator: Chris Ostrowsky (second season, second Division 1 season overall)

Yes, you read that right: a run-based spread scheme. Ostrowsky refined and adjusted this scheme as the head coach at Division II Northern Michigan for five years prior to landing in Mt. Pleasant, where his Wildcats offense was considered one of the best in the stacked Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. During Ostrowsky’s tenure in Marquette, his Wildcats set 28 program records, including career passing yards, single-season passing yards and longest offensive play. In the 2015 and 2016 seasons, directly prior to his hiring, the offense averaged 31.7 points per game and 386 combined offensive yards.

In his first season in Mt. Pleasant, Ostrowsky showed great potential. The Chips averaged over 389 yards of offense per game in 2017, averaging over 28 points per game, including over 41 points per game in the final five regular season games.

The run game also showed great improvement, as CMU’s rushing unit went from one of the worst in the country to a rock-steady unit anchored by Jonathan Ward and his 1,489 total offensive yards and 13 total offensive touchdowns.

The offense runs a no-huddle, quick-tempo offense which looks to establish the run with Ward before spreading the ball out to the receivers. The Chips utilize a lot of two-and-three man looks on the outside, preferring to use tight ends inside instead of extra receivers.


Defensive Scheme

Style: Traditional 4-3

Coordinator: Greg Colby (fourth season, 40th season overall)

Colby has been instrumental in forming a bedrock defense in Mt. Pleasant, graduating such prospects as Joe Ostman, Amari Cleman and Josh Cox to the NFL and will likely send several more prospects to the pro level in the next upcoming season.

CMU’s 4-3, while shaped like na traditional 4-3, is known for being an extremely aggressive bunch, especially in the pass rushing game. It worked to perfection in 2017, as CMU was tied for seventh in the country in total interceptions with 19. CMU was also one of the most chaotic defenses in the college football game, causing 31 turnovers in 2017, good enough for third in the country. CMU allowed 185.5 yards per game and five yards per play on average, marks good enough to finish fourth in the MAC and second, respectively.

Ostman, Coleman, Cox and Fountain all finished on the All-MAC Postseason Teams as well, establishing CMU as one of the best teams in terms of indivisual talents in the MAC on the defensive side of the ball.


Chippewas in the NFL

  • Jahleel Addae, safety, Los Angeles Chargers
  • Antonio Brown, receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Cooper Rush, quarterback, Dallas Cowboys
  • Kavon Frazier, safety, Dallas Cowboys
  • Nick Bellore, fullback/linebacker, Detroit Lions
  • Eric Fisher, tackle, Kansas City Chiefs
  • Joe Staley, tackle, San Francisco 49ers
  • Frank Zombo, linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs
  • Tyler Conklin, tight end, Minnesota Vikings
  • Amari Coleman, cornerback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • Mark Chapman, receiver, Denver Broncos (also a draft pick of te CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats)
  • LT Walton, defnesive line, Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Thomas Rawls, running back, New York Jets
  • JJ Watt (tight end at CMU before transfer to Wisconsin), defensive end, Houston Texans