2020 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl: Standouts from Day 2 of practice

The 2020 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl will be broadcast exclusively on NFL Network as well as the NFL and NFL Network apps at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 18.

PASADENA, Calif. -- For Army senior linebacker Cole Christiansen, his path post-graduation has already been mapped out.

Where football will factor into those plans remains to be seen.

Participating in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, on top of the work he put in as a three-year starter for the Black Knights, makes it a real possibility that Christiansen could be spending more time on the field before heading to the barracks.

Tuesday gave all the prospects a chance to don pads for the first time in nearly a month, giving them the opportunity to really mix it up in practice and work back into the swing of things ahead of Saturday's game. One hour-and-a-half session against his peers later, and Christiansen says he already has a clearer sense of the areas he wants to work on.

"It's ever-evolving," Christiansen said. "I think I'm really good laterally, I can move across the field pretty well. I'm learning new drop techniques. I wasn't really asked in my defense to do a lot of things straight back so I'm learning when to settle, how to settle, where my eyes should be so that's things I want to improve [on]. I want to be a better pass rusher on the second level once I get to the running back level."

As a middle linebacker under DC Jay Bateman for his first three years and DC John Loose his senior year, Christiansen was a force, leading Army in tackles the last two seasons -- both of which he served as a team captain -- and finishing his career tied for 20th in program history with 275.

The honor of competing in Pasadena this week and learning from a slew of former NFL players and coaches only pushes the Suffolk, Virginia native to want to exceed whatever the scouting report says of him coming in.

"I want to come out of this being the best football player I've been up to this point in my career and I think, based off today, I'll be that at the end of this week. I'll be forced to be the best player I can be," Christiansen said.

The journey Christiansen is embarking on is one seldom seen from players with his background. From 2017-19, athletes attending service academies or earning commission through ROTC were prohibited from pursuing a professional sports career in favor of honoring their service commitment. It was in June 2019 that a new policy was approved to grant such athletes a waiver to allow them to immediately pursue that dream.

Offensive tackle Brett Toth, Christiansen's teammate from 2016-17, was one of the first players to benefit from the change when he signed with the Eagles last August. Watching Toth's journey gave Christiansen and his Army teammates new perspective on their long-term options.

"[It was] Super inspiring 'cause the only guys that have been in the pros from West Point that I've known of are guys that have served for five or six years and then try to throw the pads back on and only a few of them actually made it," Christiansen said. "I think a lot of guys are doubtful that they make it from that. Once Brett went and he's actually playing, that inspired a lot of guys on our team that we can do it too."

Christiansen is the only Army player, and one of four invitees from the FBS independent schools, to participate in this event. Being among the chosen few made it that much more apparent to him how serious of an opportunity this is but, unlike most prospects, he does have an alternative plan should things go another route. What does that look like you might ask?

Well, he will graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the spring as a second lieutenant, with an assignment to serve as a field artillery officer. From there, he'll likely end up at Fort Hood in Texas, head to Fort Benning, Georgia for Army Ranger School and then be deployed to, in his words, "wherever the fight is."

He's eager to begin that part of his journey but if he has his way, though, having the chance to play at the next level could postpone his military plans for the foreseeable future.

Bouncing back from the unknown

Up until his junior year, Jonathan Ward had never been injured.

An AC joint sprain and MCL sprain limited him to just eight games in his third year, a contributing factor that led to the 1-11 record posted by the Central Michigan Chippewas that season.

Fast forward nearly two years later, and the senior running back finds himself as one of the eight players at his position selected to make the trip to the Rose Bowl.

Despite how discouraging the initial setback was, Ward said his mentality going into his senior year was one of high focus. He, along with his team's other captains, wanted to make sure that guys "came out every day to work and it was about business. Taking care of business. We [knew] what it felt like to be at the bottom of the food chain, to be in last place so every day we came out with that hunger to get better."

And that's exactly what happened. After contributing just 76 carries for 212 yards and a touchdown in nine games played the year prior, Ward rushed for 1,108 yards and 15 TDs on 183 carries in 12 games. He also added 34 receptions for 329 yards and a score after managing eight catches for 41 yards in '18. Oh, and the Chippewas enjoyed a bounce-back year under former Florida head coach Jim McElwain, in his first year with the program, and finished with an 8-6 record and an appearance in the New Mexico Bowl in December.

Ward's senior season, which mimicked his 1,019-rush yard, 470-receiving yard sophomore season, made him one of seven players in the FBS to rush for over 1,100 yards and gain 300-plus receiving yards. At 6-0, 202 pounds, Ward's ability to catch passes out of the backfield and in the slot makes him an intriguing talent.

"I've taken pride in my route-running and catching ability since I started playing football. I've always tried to label myself as an athlete. Growing up watching guys like Tavon Austin and Alvin Kamara, just trying to model my game after theirs and just take it to the next level," Ward said. "I know it's a lot of guys in the nation that can run the ball but I just felt [that] if I could work on my hands and my route-running that'll being something that'll separate me from the others."

In terms of an area he wants to work further on, Ward said that American team running backs coach Brandon Jackson, who played five NFL seasons and won Super Bowl XLV with the Packers in 2011, harped on getting through the hole more consistently at pad-level. Jackson was very hands-on talking with Ward and his fellow RBs on the sidelines in between drills.

Ward added that having Jackson, as well as the other coaches to learn from, is a valuable experience he's not taking for granted.

"More knowledge of the game. Just being a better student of the game, picking these guys' brains who have played at the next level for multiple years. Just seeing the things that helped them last so long in the league," Ward said of what he's hoping to take away from this week of practices. "Taking their knowledge and just mixing it with my talent. They always say when you're at your peak level with your athletic ability that you can take your game even further if you have that much more knowledge of the game so I just want to take that advice and just be the best player than I can be."

Ward will have two more days of workouts to soak up that information before demonstrating what he learned on Saturday. He plans to not waste a single second of the blessing that's been bestowed upon him.

Once a coach, still an adviser

Marvin Lewis is once again a head coach ... at least until Saturday.

As the head coach for the National Team, the long-time NFL leader, who was recently in the running for the Cowboys head coaching position, will take the sidelines in a capacity not seen from him since the 2018 season, his last with the Bengals.

He says he's eager to be back running the show.

"This is just great. The opportunity to work first off with these young coaches who are aspiring coaches, many of them I've either had the opportunity to coach 'em or I've watched 'em play and coached against 'em, and so I'm excited to have them and to help them move forward in their careers if that's what they choose to do," Lewis said. "And then, the second part is all these young players. It's just a lot of fun and I'm excited. When [director of engagement and outreach at The Trust] Hannibal [Navies] asked me to do it, I was excited to do it, just because I enjoy the fact I get the opportunity to work with these young people."

After coaching the Bengals to seven playoff trips from 2003-18, Lewis joined head coach Herm Edwards at Arizona State in May 2019 as a special adviser. With all of the NFL head coaching vacancies now occupied, Lewis doubled down on his committement to ASU.

"I'm going to continue on doing what I did with coach Edwards at Arizona State," Lewis said. "I'm excited to continue to assist those guys there in anything that he needs me to do."

Lewis didn't exactly say "never" about the chance to one day return to the NFL but, given how things currently stand, he is content with continuing on in his current gig. Given that he's a highly-respected football mind, there's no doubt his name will once again appear at the top of the candidate list over the next calendar year.

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