Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - Different format, same purpose.
And, at long last, a spring day.
Coach John Bonamego put his Central Michigan football team on display on Saturday in the program's annual Spring Game before 4,251 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. The game was presented by Graff of Mount Pleasant, University Meadows and T-Mobile.
Among those in attendance on mid-Michigan's first real spring day - temperatures reached the high 50s and sun shone brightly - were former Chippewa stars Antonio Brown, Cooper Rush and Nick Bellore, all three of whom are now playing in the NFL. That trio was among at least two dozen former Chippewas who were on hand.
"I thought it was a good day, thought it was very productive," said Bonamego, who is in his fourth year in charge of the program. "Guys flew around and competed. I thought our defense tackled well, I felt there was good back and forth and really good energy and effort. I was pleased with that."
The game was played under a different format from the traditional spring game, in which the team is divided in half. Instead, the offense was maroon and the defense white and predetermined situations were employed to give Bonamego and his coaching staff a good look at their troops under game-like conditions.
The offensive side, the maroon, the traditional way, with touchdowns, extra points and field goals. The defensive side was awarded varying points for stops, fourth-down stops, three-and-out, turnovers, etc.
"It's better for us honestly, particularly in terms of where we are with our football team," Bonamego said. "We've got a really productive day in today where we got to work some stuff where as if you split the team up and water things down it's not the same. We're still evaluating a lot of spots. It was a good day."
For the record, the Maroon defeated the White, 29-22.
Rush, who left CMU in 2016 after a brilliant four-year career as the starter, sat in the stands with several former teammates.
Rush went undrafted by signed with the Dallas Cowboys and earned the backup quarterback job in training camp.
"You learn really quick in the NFL how attention to detail is everything," said Rush, who ranks second in program history in virtually every passing statiscial category behind Dan LeFevour. "How competitive it is, how close the games are, how evenly matched the teams are and how it comes down to every single play."
With the NFL draft set to begin on Thursday, Rush knows full well the anxiety that several Chippewas may be feeling. Among them are tight end Tyler Conklin and defensive end Joe Ostman, both of whom are among CMU's top draft hopefuls.
"I talk to Joey and Conk a lot, whatever help they need," Rush said. "I tell them to enjoy this time now, leading up to the draft, because once they get going and start playing it's all the way through January. ... No matter what happens you'll get your chance and really it's just making the most of it."
Which is what happened with Rush, who moved past veteran Kellen Moore and into the Cowboys' No. 2 role a year ago in training camp. Now, he's one play away from being front and center in the highest-profile position on the highest-profile team in the NFL.
"Every week you just prepare like you're going to play," Rush said. "You might only get one chance. You've to make the most of it. At the end of the day it's just football (in the NFL). It's the same X's and O's, the talent level's a little bit higher and everything's really competitive, but it's the same (pass) routes and it's about going and making plays, throwing the ball, catching the ball and blocking. It really does come down to fundamental football."
Brown, who has gone on to play in six Pro Bowls as a Pittsburgh Steeler since leaving CMU, drew a crowd on the sidelines. He happily signed autographs and posed for photos with fans.
"It's always an honor to come back here to where things started, see the guys, see the fans, and support the school," Brown said. "There was a lot of work that went on in this stadium, a lot of summers, a lot of long nights, but that's what it's all about.
"There's a lot of love and support out here and that's always important to show the love to the kids, the community, everyone here. ... Still a lot of `27' jerseys running around."
Brown was selected in the sixth round by the Steelers in the 2010 and has developed into one of the NFL's top receivers.
"They scout every school, no matter where you're at," he said. "If you're doing the right things and playing the right way they'll find you. Don't be discouraged about where you're at. Central Michigan has a lot of guys in the NFL and it's a great program to come out of. I encourage (potential draftees) to stay motivated, stay hungry."
The CMU players partook in an autograph-signing session on Saturday morning. Autograph seekers were provided with a version of the spring-game poster for the players to sign.
CMU senior defensive lineman Nate Brisson-Fast said that he shortens his signature to "B-Fast," while senior offensive lineman Clayton Walderzak spells out his name completely, including his middle initial, P.
"They get the whole alphabet," Walderzak said.