By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Despite playing in just four games, last season proved to be a revelation for Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke.
His belief that he belongs at the helm of a Big Ten offense was reinforced with empirical data. He completed 31 of 57 passes for 381 yards, two touchdowns and one interception – winning single-game numbers for some recent Spartan quarterbacks such as Connor Cook – and he moved the ball downfield with authority enough times to build his case for starting.
And in addition to showing off a live arm, Lewerke demonstrated the ability to improvise by keeping plays alive before finding an open receiver or scrambling out of trouble for positive yardage.
Although MSU’s quarterback situation was plagued by uncertainty throughout the season because of injuries to senior starter Tyler O’Connor and backup Damion Terry, Lewerke never appeared to be overwhelmed by having to be ready to play at a moment’s notice, or overmatched by the competition.
His first career start came in Game 6 against Northwestern, and he got the call a week later, at Maryland, as well. He came off the bench to provide a spark against No. 2 Michigan (6 of 10, 100 yards, including 20-yard touchdown pass to Monty Madaris), but his season ended when he suffered a broken leg in the fourth quarter of the 32-23 defeat.
While far from a finished product, the polishing is already well underway thanks to the snaps Lewerke took as a redshirt freshman in 2016.
“I think my knowledge of the offense was pretty solid and it has improved a lot,” he said. “I think my ability to read defenses has been improving, like the ability to point out blitzes and change the protection as needed.
“I think it was very important, getting those couple starts underneath my belt, getting rocked a couple times. It was big to be able to get that underneath my belt and make sure I don’t have those kind of jitters coming into this year.”
Lewerke’s systematic process to playing the position and verifiable results earned him a place with the first offense from wire to wire in spring practice, and he solidified his status as MSU’s No. 1 quarterback when the competition reopens at preseason camp, according to head coach Mark Dantonio.
By taking the necessary steps to establish credibility, Lewerke has been able to assert himself in a way that older teammates don’t find pretentious or obnoxious.
“I’d say my leadership is a lot better this year, so far,” he said. “I don’t think I always had that and I had to grow into it. I’ve normally been a shy kid so I think knowing that my teammates support me and my coach supports me is big when it comes to commanding the huddle.
“It is really nice (to be No. 1) at this point. It makes you feel, obviously, a lot more confident, and when you’re confident you do play better.”
The Spartans are coming off a 12-year-low 2,668 yards through the air, so it stands to reason that improved quarterback play will be vital to rebounding from last season’s 3-9 finish.
Senior-to-be offensive lineman Brian Allen is looking forward to having stability at the quarterback position where Terry will return as a fifth-year senior with one career start and heralded prospect Messiah deWeaver figures to see his first action as a redshirt freshman.
“The biggest thing with that is getting the wide receivers and tight ends on the same page, but that wasn’t always due to play (last season) because all our quarterbacks got hurt at one point or another,” Allen said. “We’re very excited about the quarterback room going into this season. Having (Lewerke) and Damion play in games last year gave them the opportunity to get meaningful snaps when we were working on what we needed to work on.
“What impresses me about Brian is, just being a young guy a lot of people listen to him. The good thing is his command of the huddle. I’ve seen it where guys have come in and that hasn’t been the case because they weren’t able to communicate to 10 other guys. He does a really good job of just getting the plays in, coming in clear and communicating well. It gives guys confidence when you see him with confidence.”
Third-year safety Grayson Miller is admittedly biased. He and Lewerke were members of MSU’s 2015 recruit class, and “Brian’s one of my roommates and one of my best friends in the world,” Miller said. “I’ve said this since my first spring here, that he improved more than any player from fall 2015 to spring 2016, and he’s gotten even better since then -- obviously.”
However, who better to provide insight and a scouting report on MSU’s presumptive new starting quarterback that someone who shares a refrigerator with him and has faced him every day in practice?
“When Coach D came out and said Lewerke’s ahead of the pack, you could just see a little hop in his step,” Miller continued. “He’s leading guys in the weight room; he’s leading guys out on the field during sprints; he’s making sure he’s doing everything he can to be the face of this program that we need.
“I don’t think there’s a better guy, more talented guy to really get us going offensively and as a full team he’s someone you can rally around even though he’s a younger guy. He’s so talented everybody’s embracing him.”
Miller is virtually certain that Lewerke would have started Michigan State’s final four games had he not gotten injured, but the disappointment of knowing what might have been didn’t linger.
“He came in confident as if he never missed a down,” Miller said. “It was impressive with me that he came in with that kind of charisma and just rolled with it. I don’t think Brian could really come out of his shell until that transition was made when Tyler was gone because that’s a guy Brian really learned a lot from.
“Now that Brian’s going to be the guy, and we know that, I think it’s going to be special this year, and he’s going to be able to feed of that as well.”
Lewerke is deceptively athletic, given his lanky 6-foot-3, 213-pound physique, and brings a level of maneuverability to the position the Spartans haven’t enjoyed since Drew Stanton bobbed and weaved his way through defenses from 2004-06.
“For one, he can run,” Miller said of Lewerke. “When I got here I didn’t think he’d run for a first down in his life, but he’s surprises me with how athletic he is. And as a single-high safety, he looks off (defenders). Sometimes you don’t notice it from stands, but his eyes control a lot. He can make almost any throw with a lot of velocity, or whatever it may take.
“He’s kind of like Connor with taking risks. He’s a little bit of a gunslinger and that’s the kind of guy you want. Maybe it’s big risk big reward, but you’d rather play with a guy like that than someone who’s going to be super-conservative all the time.”
While waiting for his leg to heal, Lewerke had no choice but to work on his upper-body strength for nearly four months. He couldn’t help but notice that he was able to put even more zip on the ball during spring but now his attention is on rehabilitating the Spartans’ mental state.
The feelings of entitlement that came with winning the 2015 Big Ten Championship and earning one of four berths in the College Football Playoff have to be eliminated once and for all.
“The playoff year, we’d beat a team and it was like, ‘Oh, another win,’ ” Lewerke said. “This year, for me, it’s not to take any wins for granted. Coach D always points out it’s extremely hard to win football games, and last year definitely proved it. We were really close in a lot of games we probably should have won so this year we will definitely cherish every win.”