By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
It was one of the many explosive plays in the Green-White spring game produced by Spartan underclassmen who are continuing their preparation for the 2017 season as spring practice nears its conclusion next week.
What the crowd estimated at 25,000 saw was a controlled scrimmage pitting the offense, wearing green jerseys, against the white-clad defensive unit. Using a modified scoring system -- the defense, for example, earned its points by forcing turnovers and holding the offense scoreless for five-minutes stretches -- the White prevailed, 33-23.
"There's always a lot of excitement and anticipation when you go out there in the spring for everybody involved," said MSU head coach Mark Dantonio, "so it's something that's always needed because I think there's more on the table when you play in front of people."
Although not as competitive as the simulated games played in previous springs when the seniors drafted the underclassmen to form relatively even sides, the scrimmage had more value from a practice standpoint because it provided a more accurate picture of what units might look next season with first-, second- and third-teamers interacting in real-time scenarios.
"I think you get more out of it like this," Dantonio said. "We lost a lot of seniors this year and had two guys (Malik McDowell and Montae Nicholson) go out early, so our numbers were a little bit down. We would have had guys with no backup playing on one side or the other and didn't want to do that. We wanted to work our twos in there with the ones so that there was depth on either side."
All eyes were on Lewerke, the redshirt-sophomore-to-be who appeared no worse for wear from the broken leg that sidelined him for the final four games of the season. Lewerke got the lion's share of snaps with some relief work delivered by walk-on backup Colar Kuhns.
Lewerke showed off a live arm and even-tempered decision-making while completing 25 of 44 passes for 305 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. What Lewerke kept under wraps was his ability to scramble out of trouble and extend plays with his feet, but his maneuverability is considered a strength based on what he did last season and in practice.
"We've had our quarterbacks playing (in practice), but I do think (Lewerke) is much-improved," Dantonio said. "He's still going to mix up signals, call the wrong play when it's supposed to be a different play, and those types of things which are elementary mistakes that he will get past.
"But I think he's progressed very well. He can throw the ball and he has great ability to run the football, too. He's a good athlete, he's poised back there and every time he takes a snap in an environment when there are people there, he's going to get better, and better and better. There's always a little bit of a learning curve, but I think he's a good player. I also think our other quarterbacks are good players, too, but right now, he's the guy."
If MSU still picked a spring game MVP -- a practice abandoned years ago -- it might have been the 6-foot-1, 183-pound Jackson, who had eight catches for 168 yards.
"He's a great football player," Dantonio said of Jackson, who as a true freshman last season had five catches for 89 yards and a touchdown in nine appearances. "He can really run. He's got size. He's got great hands. He's got to get tougher, so we can print that, and that's what I'm always telling him.
"But he can play. He has a very unique skill set."
Defensively, Joe Bachie has continued to build on the head start he got off to last season as a true freshman when his redshirt season was burned out of necessity. He has the inside track to replace departed, two-year-starting middle linebacker Riley Bullough.
"Joe Bachie is a playmaker for us," Dantonio said. "He's got all the attributes. He's tough, he's a very good thinker who diagnoses things and he's a quick reactor. So right now, I think he's the starting Mike linebacker. I do think (redshirt junior) Byron Bullough has had a good spring and (fifth-year senior) Shane Jones was hurt a little bit but we have depth at that position."
Although leading returning rusher LJ Scott has been limited this spring while recovering from offseason surgeries and did not play in the Green-White game, veteran tailbacks Madre London, who broke loose for a 75-yard touchdown run and finished with 127 on 15 carries, and Gerald Holmes (21 for 61 yards) showed with their hard-nosed running they will continue to be reliable options in the backfield.
"(He) has solidified himself, sort of, as the right offensive tackle," Dantonio said. "He's gotten bigger -- he's over 300 pounds now. He's a good athlete, he can run, he's tough. (Redshirt sophomore offensive guard) Tyler Higby is coming into his own. He's in his second year; he's healed from his broken leg. He started the spring slowly but I think he's transitioned and is having a very strong spring."
At left tackle, towering Cole Chewins (6-8, 278), who was pressed into duty last season as a redshirt freshman, continues to impress and is also emerging as a leader, Dantonio said.
Others singled out for having a "good spring thus far" by Dantonio included defensive back David Dowell.
"He's playing very well at the one safety and Matt Morrissey is playing well (at the other)," Dantonio said. "Josiah Scott (an early enrollee freshman cornerback) has lot of Darqueze Dennard-type intangibles that go along with the ability to run and (his) ball skills. He's a very good tackler.
"He's put himself in position to start for us right now as a true freshman, and that's not easy to do. That's been a big positive for us."
Wide receiver Hunter Rison, the son of former Michigan State All-American Andre Rison and an early freshman enrollee, was also introduced while wearing a Spartan uniform to MSU fans for the first time.
"Hunter's had a nice spring," Dantonio said. "He's very functional. To me, functionality is a big part of everything. You've got to know what to do and then be able to take steps forward in that capacity, and he's able to do that. He can catch the football -- almost made a great catch on a corner route -- he runs good crisp routes and he's a competitor. He's going to show up next year for us on the field on game day, I think without question."
The Spartans have two more practices before breaking spring camp, but work will continue throughout the spring and summer toward getting the program ready for the 2017 season.
"You've got to make plays on the football field, you've got to have leadership -- I think a player-led team is always going to be better than a coaches-led team," Dantonio said. "I do believe that because at the end of the day they've gotta stand on the field by themselves and play, and at the end of the day when they stand off the field they have to be able to handle themselves accordingly.
"We've been 12-2 and lost the (College Football Playoff) game, and things needed to be fixed. That's what we all do for a living. That's the world we're living in. I can't point to any one thing and say, `This is the most important thing.' I'm not going to do that right now; we've had that conversation. What I can say is that we're always going to address everything we see as a fault of ours, we're going to critique it and we're going to try to change it and move forward.
"We're going to recollect ourselves and go again. And then we're going to recollect ourselves and go again. It's difficult to refine excellence in any respect, on the scoreboard, off the field or in the classroom, but we'll keep striving for it and to the very, very best we can."