Bob Wojnowski and John Niyo break down Michigan and Michigan State for the 2017 college football season.
East Lansing — It’s not always easy to predict who will become a great quarterback.
The number of players who had all the physical tools — strong arm, quick release, athletic — that never panned out at the most important position on the football field is long. That’s as true at Michigan State as any other team, but for the Spartans, the run has been impressive since Mark Dantonio took over in 2007.
He inherited Brian Hoyer, now an NFL veteran who ranks fifth in career passing yards at Michigan State. After that was Kirk Cousins, the $20 million man for Washington who is second in career passing at MSU, but is better remembered as the consummate leader who helped lift the program to championship status. Then there was Connor Cook, the brash gunslinger who won more games (71) and threw for more yards than any quarterback in MSU history while taking the Spartans to two Big Ten titles and a spot in the College Football Playoffs.
All three had the tools, to be sure. What they also had was something harder to quantify, that certain something that makes a great quarterback.
Michigan State is counting on Brian Lewerke being the next in line to possess that same quality.
“Things don’t bother him,” quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. “He’s got a personality that kind of fits quarterback. I don’t think he’s overwhelmed. I talk to him all the time and ask if he’s doing all right, but I think he’s more excited to play football than nervous to play football.
“He carries himself confidently and sort of, I think, has the ‘it’ factor.”
The “it” factor might be more important for a quarterback than any other player on the field. And while Michigan State has had them in recent seasons, there have also been some misses.
Andrew Maxwell and Tyler O’Connor were solid backups, but neither had it as a starter. Maxwell was the starter in 2012 when Michigan State went 7-6 but gave way to Cook the next year. O’Connor was in that same group and even helped the Spartans to the upset win at Ohio State in 2015 when Cook was hurt before starting last season. But Michigan State was still missing “the guy” at quarterback.
It was during last year’s miserable 3-9 season the first glimpse of what Lewerke could be was revealed. He wasn’t great in his two starts, but he showed promise for a redshirt freshman. However, when he came on in relief against Michigan and nearly rallied the Spartans, it was evident he was a cut above. Unfortunately for Lewerke, he broke his leg in the same game and missed the final four games of the season.
That didn’t stop Dantonio from seeing something potentially special.
“I think he’s done enough to warrant him to be the guy to beat out,” Dantonio said. “He’s the guy.”
Dantonio said that on Dec. 15, just weeks after the season ended and Lewerke still hobbling around. He knew then, before spring practice and well before preseason camp, Lewerke might have “it.”
Nine months later, Dantonio feels just as good about it.
“The way he’s handled that, he’s shown a lot of growth as a person,” Dantonio said. “He’s shown a lot in his leadership abilities. Also on the field, he knows our offense, he’s got a great arm, he’s got quick release, he can get out of problems, he’s elusive and he’s calm under pressure. I think all those things have sort of allowed me to move forward with my statements on him as a quarterback. I think he has an outstanding future.”
As the off-season progressed, others started to see that as well.
While Michigan State was dealing with plenty of issues that could tear teams apart, Lewerke was busy, along with others, trying to bring it together. He leaned heavily on Cousins, who told him the best leaders reach out and get to know everyone on the team. Lewerke has done that.
“It’s easy to follow him,” junior linebacker Andrew Dowell said. “He’s a guy that always does the right thing. So, people naturally follow him. He’s competitive, too.”
Added junior tight end Matt Sokol, “He’s been a commander and is taking the lead on offense and in a leadership position. He’s got a lot of passion for the game and is ready to show what he can do.”
As great as the leadership part is, it’s that on-the-field part that will be just as crucial.
All indications are Lewerke has the on-field part covered, as well. He was 31-for-57 for 381 yards and two touchdowns in four games last season and was 25-for-44 for 305 yards in the spring game.
“He’s a very natural thrower,” Salem said. “He throws people open and knows where to go with the ball and throws the ball on time. One thing is he’s quick-bodied, and I think that’s an understated thing with him, so he can get out of trouble and make plays with his feet and extend plays, create a little bit but still have the ability to throw downfield.”
So, he can be a playmaker, though Lewerke sees things a little differently.
“Seeing the reads downfield and making sure I get ball to right guy,” he explained this week. “All I am is the guy that gets the ball to the playmakers. That’s all I got to do.”
However, others believe Lewerke is more than just a facilitator.
“Brian is such a cool customer,” wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel said. “He doesn’t get rattled by anything. His anticipation is special. He throws a nice ball, and he isn’t afraid to let the deep ball fly. Speaking as a former wide receiver, I would have loved to play with a quarterback with that skillset.”
Whether Lewerke’s name ends up anywhere near Cousins and Cook in the record books by the time he’s done remains to be seen. Saturday’s season-opener will be the first chance for him to do so as “the guy.”
But that’s something many Spartans believed he was all along.
“Brian Lewerke’s got what it takes, man,” junior running back LJ Scott said. “Last year, when he came in, I looked in his eyes and he didn’t have any fear. He was ready to go. He was anxious to get on the field. From then on out, I knew he was the guy.”