Sophomore Brian Lewerke talks after Michigan State's first practice. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — A quarterback’s job is not unlike that of a politician, and understanding how to work the room can be just as important as how to read a defense.
That’s a lesson the best ones learn early in their careers. And it’s one that Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke, a redshirt sophomore already tabbed as the Spartans’ starter, says he’s working hard to implement as preseason camp gets underway.
Lewerke saw action in four games last season, including a pair of starts, before suffering a broken left tibia in the loss to Michigan in late October. But after returning to full strength during spring practice, “Brian’s the guy right now,” according to head coach Mark Dantonio.
Actually, Dantonio has gone quite a bit further than that, calling Lewerke “a cut above” while comparing him favorably to former Michigan State standout Kirk Cousins.
“In a lot of ways, he reminds me of him,” Dantonio said at last month’s Big Ten media days.
And while Cousins’ early career arc followed a similar path — from redshirt to understudy to starter — Dantonio is eager to see that continue.
“He’s got game experience, he’s got a great arm, he’s very cool under pressure,” he said of Lewerke, who is ahead of both fifth-year senior Damion Terry and redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver. “He knows our players very well, knows things schematically. I think he’s a very quick learner. He has all the attributes that we need to be an outstanding, championship-type quarterback.”
To that end, Lewerke says he’s busy “trying to live up to that standard.” And while he’s quick to add, “I don’t think I’m anywhere near that yet,” he is heeding some advice Cousins passed along over the phone last spring. The most important lesson: The best way to prove yourself as a leader in difficult times like these – Michigan State’s trying to move past last year’s 3-9 finish, and all the ugly turmoil that followed – is to reach out rather than to recoil.
"He said to get to know people,” said Lewerke, 20, a former three-star recruit out of Phoenix. “Try and get to know as many people as you can on the team, and get to know them personally. It builds relationships. It builds confidence in your teammates in your abilities.”
And whether it’s making small talk during breaks on the practice field – “I go over to people and ask them how their day has been, how they’re doing on the field, stuff like that,” Lewerke said – or bonding through team bowling nights away from the football building, the goal is the same. The Spartans earned a failing grade in team chemistry last season, and even if he’s not one of the team’s tri-captains this fall, Lewerke knows he’ll be responsible for helping set a different tone.
Especially for the offense, considering the relative youth and inexperience around him. The receiving corps boasts some promising young talent — Lewerke raved about freshman Hunter Rison’s sure-handed ability Monday — but not much of a track record. Outside of center Brian Allen, the other four projected starters on the offensive line have combined for 14 starts, mostly as injury replacements last season.
Lewerke, an economics major, isn’t the loudest voice. That’s one reason Dantonio keeps prodding, saying, “He needs to step out a little bit more.” But at the same time, the coach also likes the “intangible that he can bring that sense of calmness to our football team.”
“And he’s continuing to grow as a leader, to be that strong voice in the offensive room,” sophomore left tackle Cole Chewins said. “He brings that authority and that presence that we need to be confident and know what we’re doing.”
Lewerke certainly doesn’t lack for confidence in his own ability. He said Monday he thinks he “can be one of the top guys in the nation” at his position. And he’s in better shape physically now to try. Lewerke, a 6-foot-3, 215-pounder, has added 15 pounds that “should help me take some hits this year.” He also says he’s getting more zip on the ball with his throws this summer “and if my feet are a little late, my arm can make up for it a little more,” he said.
Ideally, Lewerke learned a little something from watching Tyler O’Connor, last year’s fifth-year senior starter before getting benched in mid-October. And the unspoken lesson there is the same one Cousins preached: To consistently win games, you’ve first got to win over the locker room.
“Last year I didn’t really have that feeling,” Lewerke said, whose first start lasted only a half before getting pulled for O’Connor in a loss at Northwestern. “But I think this year I’ve definitely grown into it a little bit more. I’ve realized the position and the opportunity I have right now, and I’m trying to grasp it as much as I can.”