MSU coordinators Brad Salem and Mike Tressel give spring updates. The Detroit News
East Lansing — After one of the worst offensive seasons in program history, there’s one aspect most observers will be focusing on when Michigan State plays in its annual spring game on Saturday.
With a new coordinator, the Spartans’ offense will be under plenty of scrutiny, something that won’t end after the Green and White game. In fact, expect the microscope to be focused squarely on offensive coordinator Brad Salem and his group right up until the season begins next fall and beyond.
Just don’t expect to get much of an idea of what the offense will look like under Salem, who takes over for Dave Warner after spending the last six seasons coaching the quarterbacks following his first three seasons at Michigan State in charge of the running backs.
“Yeah, I think you’ll see some things but we’re not gonna go out there and bag everything we’ve been doing all spring,” coach Mark Dantonio said on Tuesday. “I think we’ve got to use this opportunity to play in front of people and create a lot more pressure on the players to perform in front of a crowd. It’s meaningful. It’s a meaningful scrimmage.”
And as much as Salem might want to let his offense loose, he understands there won’t be much value in doing so on April 13, a little more than four months before the Spartans play a game that counts in the standings.
“You always coach to your personality and the things you’ve been around, whether that’s my dad or people I’ve worked for way back like Gary Tranquil or things here in nine years,” said Salem, whose father, Joe, was the head coach at Minnesota from 1979-83. “Those are things you’re familiar with, but the biggest thing is finding a way to get the ball to your playmakers and just being able to do different things with formation and people. But really it’s systematically having the ability for our guys to line up and play so there is less thought, and guys can concentrate on making the play and the task at hand.”
Regardless of how the playbook might has been tweaked from the time Michigan State closed the 2018 season with a 7-6 loss to Oregon on the Redbox Bowl, getting better play at the quarterback position is critical.
Brian Lewerke had a breakout season as a sophomore in 2017, but a low start followed by a shoulder injury hampered his performance in 2018 when he gave way to then redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi in three games over the final few weeks of the regular season.
However, after plenty of offseason rest, Lewerke could be entering his fifth season about to return to the form that had some putting him the discussion for the Heisman Trophy before last season.
“You feel like it,” Salem said when asked if it was the old Lewerke. “The confidence is back. The arm strength is back and so we’ve seen some very good things from him.”
Lewerke, too, feels like things are getting back to normal.
MSU coach Mark Dantonio gives an update as the Spartans prepare for Saturday's annual spring game. The Detroit News
He said he feels like he’s 100 percent and his focus has been on polishing his mechanics after reverting to some bad habits last season to compensate for the sore shoulder.
“There are definitely times where I feel like I have my strength back and that’s really building my confidence up,” Lewerke said.
Lewerke is on the same page as Salem when it comes to not showing much in the spring game, but the overall emphasis of the offense this spring has been on scoring points. That seems like a simple approach, but after scoring just 18.7 points a game last season, it’s the easiest thing for the Spartans to focus on.
If they happen to enter the season with a healthy Lewerke, then all the better. If the returns this spring are any indication, a refreshed Lewerke is making the most of his last go-around.
“Not being able throw or do much for a while made me really miss the game,” Lewerke said. “Just being able to do some simple things like spring football, which in you fifth year you probably kinda would be bored with, but I enjoy it and I just love getting out there and throwing the ball around.”
Of course, don’t completely count out Lombardi. He started three games as a redshirt freshman and played well in Michigan State’s scrimmage on Friday.
“I feel like I’ve had a good spring so far,” Lombardi said. “I feel like it’s been good for the whole offense in general. We’ve really improved every day. If you were here from day one to 12 we’ve made drastic improvement, so I’m excited for it.”