By: Nate Schneider
Tony Poljan, newcomer Shane Morris battling for Central Michigan starting QB job
See more from 2017 MHSAA Boys Golf Finals.
By Nate Schneider
When Central Michigan football head coach John Bonamego had his introductory press conference in February of 2015, he spoke of the importance of bringing Mid-American Conference championships to his alma mater.
Bonamego guided the Chippewas to a 7-6 record in his inaugural season, finishing in a four-way tie for the MAC West Division title plus a 21-14 loss to Minnesota in the Quick Lane Bowl. Central Michigan did qualify for another bowl game in 2016, a 55-10 blowout against Tulsa in the now-defunct Miami Beach Bowl, but a 6-7 record including a 3-5 MAC mark left most people feeling as though it was a disappointment.
Now the Chippewas are tasked with replacing their reliable four-year starting quarterback in Cooper Rush, now turning heads as he’s put together a couple strong preseason games in a row for the Dallas Cowboys.
The two candidates to replace Rush and lead the charge in the brand-new spread offense could not be much more different. First you have redshirt freshman Tony Poljan, a graduate of the same Lansing Catholic Central High School that produced Rush.
Poljan is 6-foot-7 and blessed with all the physical tools to the point where Big Ten Conference schools such as Minnesota and Michigan State were recruiting him as a tight end. Poljan originally committed to Michigan, but flipped his decision when he knew he would have an opportunity to compete for the starting QB job with the Chippewas. Poljan wowed coaches many times during spring practice, leading many to believe the job would be his in the fall.
But in the annual Maroon and Gold Spring Game in May, he showed some struggles indicative of an inexperienced quarterback still becoming comfortable in a new spread system and collegiate football in general.
The other prime candidate is a familiar name in Michigan football, graduate transfer Shane Morris who played his previous four years at the University of Michigan before opting to finish his career at Central Michigan.
Morris starred at Warren De La Salle until he developed mononucleosis which ended his senior season. As one of the top recruits in the nation, he signed with Michigan on National Signing Day in 2013.
Instead of a dream career at U of M, it turned into a situation where Morris struggled to ever see the field.
He did start for the Wolverines in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl as a true freshman due to an injury to Devin Gardner, completing 24-of-38 passes for 196 yards. As a sophomore, the infamous concussion incident happened when Morris started versus Minnesota and continued playing despite suffering a head injury during the game.
It was a controversial incident that led to national debate and an on-campus protest. Morris rarely saw the field over the next two-and-a-half years, finishing his Michigan career with 434 passing yards and no touchdown passes plus five interceptions.
But the transfer to Central Michigan provides Morris a chance at redemption with a new system in which he says he already feels comfortable.
Morris arrived on campus in June and worked throughout the summer learning the schemes of the new Central Michigan spread offense under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Chris Ostrowsky.
He has a stable of weapons around him with top receivers Corey Willis, Mark Chapman and Brandon Childress all returning. Although a broken foot suffered by standout senior tight end Tyler Conklin will keep him out for much if not all the season, there is depth at the position.
But first, Morris must win the starting position and that is a big if because he is a one-year stopgap whereas Poljan is the clear-cut quarterback of the future.
When does the future start is the biggest question Central Michigan coaches have to answer?
If they feel Morris gives them the best chance to win a MAC title right now, he will be under center at the outset of the season.
The Chippewas were picked to finish fifth out of six teams in the MAC West when the preseason poll was released in late July, but this is a team that could defy the odds.
Not only is the MAC West a little more wide-open this year with Western Michigan not feeling quite as much like an overwhelming favorite, but CMU does return a lot of talent scattered around the field.
Already mentioned are the contingent of wideouts, but there is also a very deep stable of running backs that is bolstered by the return of redshirt sophomore Romello Ross. As a true freshman in 2015, he burst onto the scene late in the year with a four-TD game versus Eastern Michigan and a 100-yard rushing performance against Minnesota in the bowl game. Ross tore his ACL during an August practice last year and was lost for the season, a huge blow for the Chippewas. But now he’s back and healthy, while fellow running backs such as senior Devon Spalding and Minnesota transfer Berkley Edwards give the Chippewas a lot of strong options.
Central Michigan has a chance to be very special on offense if the quarterback position and offensive line click into place.
Defensively, six starters return including All-MAC first team performers Malik Fountain at middle linebacker and Amari Coleman (New Lothrop) at cornerback. The Chippewas have had one of the stronger defenses in the MAC dating back to 2012 and there is no reason this year should be any different.
Bonamego wants to bring MAC titles to Mount Pleasant and while it would be very surprising if it happened this fall, it also wouldn’t be an outright shocker.