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2019 Central Michigan football positional previews: running backs

Running back was a bit of a black hole in 2018, due to injury and general offensive struggles. Can an experienced core rejuvenate the CMU offense in 2019?

Central Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The offense as a whole struggled in 2018, that was extremely apparent.

The rushing offense certainly could not avoid that fate, as a combination of injury and general playcalling woes doomed the unit to be a dismal 116th in the country in 2018, with eight total touchdowns on the season and averaging 120.2 yards per game.

Five of the twelve games in the season ended with a quarterback leading in total rushing yards, which isn’t exactly how most teams want to try and win games. There were two 100+ yard games from CMU runners in 2018, but only one went to a running back (Romello Ross vs. Ball State, 111 yards.) Outside of those games, it was a struggle to reach 50 yards per game for an individual running back, as runners gained only an average of 3.23 yards per rush.

Here’s some game-high rushing totals to really drive that point forward:

  • Tony Poljan (QB), Week 1 vs. Kentucky: 47 yards
  • Poljan (QB), Week 2 vs. Kansas: 43 yards
  • Tommy Lazzaro (QB), Week 4 vs. Maine (FCS): 44 yards
  • Ross, Week 10 vs. EMU: 57 yards
  • Ross, Week 11 vs. BGSU: 34 yards
  • Ross, Week 12 vs. Toledo: 43 yards

That’s over half of the season where a running back failed to reach 50 yards or a quarterback led in rushing yards. What made things more frustrating was, quite simply, this wasn’t the outlook heading into the season. Jonathan Ward, who was the expected starter, dealt with a nagging shoulder injury all season,severely affecting his ability to perform, as he could no longer be a true double threat out of the backfield.

Now under a different direction with Jim McElwain, CMU will look to move to a more pro-style offense, which could result in some dividends for the running backs group, as they’ll likely get some different looks and touches.

So what does the CMU roster have to offer?

Key departures:

  • None

Key returnees:

  • Jonathan Ward
  • Kumehnnu Gwilly
  • Kobe Lewis
  • Romello Ross

Key additions

  • Lew Nichols
  • Josh Crawford

Jonathan Ward, Senior (Bishop McNamara HS; Kankakee, Illinois)

  • 2018 stats: 76 carries for 212 yards and one rushing touchdown; eight receptions for 41 yards; one-of-two for 29 yards and one passing touchdown in nine games
  • Career stats: 290 carries for 1,290 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns; 64 receptions for 580 receiving yards and three touchdowns; two-of-four passing for 50 yards and one touchdown in 30 games

2018 didn’t go to plan for Jonathan Ward, who suffered from injury early and often in a disappointing campaign which saw him gain only 253 total yards in nine games.

But if 2017 was any indication, Ward has the ability to be an offensive dynamo for the Chippewas. Standing at six-foot, 202 lbs., Ward was, perhaps, the best offensive player by talent on the roster two years ago, picking up 226 total touches, 1,489 total yards and 13 total touchdowns on his way to a second-team All-MAC selection. His adeptness at making split decisions and accelerating on the first step helped Ward gain the edge on many defenders, even when the line didn’t give him the look the play called for.

Now fully healed, Ward will likely reclaim his place as RB1 going into fall camps. He took most of the first-team reps at RB during spring scrimmage, and looked to have returned to form, especially in the passing game.

Romello Ross, redshirt senior (Detroit Western HS; Detroit, Michigan)

  • 2018 stats: 89 carries for 402 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns; five receptions for 17 yards in eight games played (four starts)
  • Career stats: 197 carries for 852 yards and seven touchdowns; 17 receptions for 132 yards and a touchdown in 25 games played (five starts)

Ward’s loss was Ross’ gain in 2018, as Ross won over the coaches with an improved second-half performance in relief of Kumehnnu Gwilly. It was a long road back for the Detroit Western product, who had worked three years to get back into the RB1 role.

Ross, currently at five-foot-eleven, 211 lbs., put himself on the track to be the future workhorse of the CMU backs rotation after impressing as a true freshman at the end of the 2015 season (including a 100-yard rushing game in the Motor City Bowl vs. Minnesota,) but picked up an ACL injury in the offseason and had to redshirt in 2016. He struggled to get back to form in 2017 and was ultimately jumped on the depth chart as true sophomore Ward emerged.

Ross, a no-nonsense runner with burst, is a balanced option in case of injury and has shown himself to be a decent downage back as well. He led the team in ruhsing yards in six of the team’s 12 games in 2018 and will likely be in contention for the RB2 spot, depending on how the McElwain/Cummings offensive system looks.

Kumehnnu Gwilly, redshirt senior (Utica HS; Shelby Township, Michigan)

  • 2018 stats: 81 carries for 285 yards and one touchdown; 8 receptions for 31 yards in 12 games
  • Career stats: 134 carries for 489 yards and three touchdowns; 14 receptions for 76 yards in 25 starts

Gwilly, at six-foot-two, 246 lbs., is easily the biggest running back in the room and his running style makes that evident, as he is very much the power back with north-south tendencies. He averaged 3.5 yards per rush in 2018, mostly finding work on short-distance packages. Unfortunately, last season didn’t yield many of those opporunities, so Gwilly only accumulated an average of 23.8 yards per game, even with the injury to Ward.

Gwilly was initially the injury replacement for Ward before giving way to Ross, who showed a resurgence in the second half of the season.

Gwilly, much like last season, will likely primarily see the field in special situations and on special teams, but will fight for RB3 on the depth chart in fall camps.

Other rostered names:

  • Kobe Lewis, sophomore (Americus-Sumpter HS; Americus, Georgia): Stands at six-foot, 194 lbs. An unrated cornerback recruit via 247Sports, Lewis chose CMU over Georgia State during his recruiting process. Ran for 1,734 rushing yards, 204 receiving yards and 25 total touchdowns in his senior season. Primarily a kick returner for CMU in 2018, with 571 yards on 26 returns. Also had 37 yards on 12 carries.
  • Jerrod Davis, senior (Portage Central HS; Detroit, Michigan): Stands at five-foot-eleven, 195 lbs. A two-star recruit per 247Sports, CMU was only offer. Primarily a kick returner and special teams contributor. In 2016, was team’s leading kick returner with 18 kick returns for 478 yards.
  • Lew Nichols, freshman (Cass Tech HS; Detroit, Michigan): Stands at five-foot-ten, 220 lbs. A high three-star recruit per 247Sports, remained committed to CMU through the coaching change, rejecting offers from schools such as Missouri, West Virginia, Indiana, Syracuse, Pitt, Minnesota, Kentucky and Cincinnatti. Ran for 1,078 rushing yards on 84 carries for 23 touchdowns, scoring once every 3.65 touches, during his senior year. Was named an all-state prospect by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and the Associated Press.
  • Joshua Crawford, freshman (Montclair HS; Montclair, New Jersey): Stands at five-foot-eleven, 180 lbs. A two-star recruit per 247Sports, remained committed to CMU (his only FBS offer) through the coaching change, was first 2019 recruit commitment from out-of-state. Had interest from Towson, Lafayette, William and Mary, Harvard, Yale and Navy, per Central Michigan Life. In his senior season, accumulated 934 rushing yards on 146 carries for 15 touchdowns, per’s prep school database.
  • Charles Highbaugh, redshirt freshman (Cass Tech HS; Detroit, Michigan): Stands at five-foot-ten, 216 lbs. An unrated recruit per 247Sports. Listed offers included Concordia (NAIA), with interest from Grand Valley State (D-II), Davenport (D-II), Northern Michigan (D-II), Mount Union (D-III) and Ferris State (D-II), per The D Zone. Had three carries for six yards in 2018.
  • Thaddeus Cornick, junior (Fleetwood HS; Reading, Pennsylvania): Stands at six-foot, 192 lbs. Former defensive back, registered 40 tackles, a fumble recovery, seven quarterback hits and a blocked kick at Edinboro College (D-II) as a true freshman in 2015. In high school as a running back, collected a total of 483 rushing yards on 81 carries for five touchdowns, per MaxPreps. Has no recorded stats as a Chippewa.