'He had good zip': Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke passes spring test in a breeze
East Lansing — The wind was blowing at Spartan Stadium on Saturday afternoon and Brian Lewerke was slinging the ball around the field.
Forget that Michigan State’s offense didn’t look much different than the one that averaged barely more than 18 points a game last season. It was, after all, the plan coming into the annual Green and White game. Even with the coaching staff reshuffled and Brad Salem now the offensive coordinator, coach Mark Dantonio’s plan was to keep things simple
So, no, there was nothing exciting to see when it came to the offense as a whole. The Green team (defense) won the scrimmage, 42-26, in a modified scoring system in front of about 10,000 fans and dominated the game at times.
However, the fact Lewerke looked like the Lewerke from 2017 and not the one from a year ago was enough to create plenty of optimism for the Spartans. Entering his fifth and final season with the Spartans, Lewerke was 14-for-20 for 181 yards and two touchdowns as he split time with sophomore Rocky Lombardi and freshman Theo Day.
“I think today went really well,” Lewerke said. “My arm felt great. I was focusing on my footwork and form. I didn’t feel any pain whatsoever throwing. I threw the ball pretty well. I had to come back to the field with one that was on the money, so I think that definitely helped.”
What it helped with was confidence.
Never completely lacking in that category, Lewerke admitted on Saturday that there was plenty of frustration in 2018 and that could have had an affect on the entire team as Michigan State finished 7-6 overall and well back in the Big Ten East.
Lewerke’s play was symbolic for the Spartans’ season. He threw seven interceptions in the first six games before injuring his shoulder in a victory at Penn State on Oct. 13. From there, Lewerke tried to play through the pain but was never truly effective as his arm strength was sapped and he gave way to Lombardi, started three games down the stretch.
On Saturday, there were no signs of any lingering issues as Lewerke showed nice touch on an early 10-yard touchdown pass to Darrell Stewart Jr. He had plenty of zip on the ball and later added a 50-yard touchdown pass to running back Connor Heyward on a screen.
“I thought he threw the ball effectively,” Dantonio said. “I think he’s done that throughout the spring. The arm strength is good. It doesn’t mean it’s gonna be on the money all the time, but his arm strength is good. He looks healthy. I hope his confidence is there. That’s what I plan on and it seems to be based on how he performed today.”
Stewart saw the same thing. The senior receiver finished with five catches for 82 yards and two touchdowns, and he never lost faith in Lewerke.
“I feel like it was the same Brian Lewerke we had last year,” Stewart said. “Things happen, but I feel like he’s gained his confidence back. He looked confident throwing the ball, looked healthy, looked like a great guy.”
Junior cornerback Josiah Scott was impressed with Lewerke. Scott intercepted Lewerke in the first half, but that was on a well-thrown ball that senior Brandon Sowards was unable to go up and get, allowing Scott to make the play.
“He had good zip on the ball,” Scott said. “It was coming out smoother than they were before. He was able to fit balls in tighter spaces and able to make plays.”
Making those sorts of plays will be critical for Michigan State. Lewerke did plenty of that in 2017 as he threw for 2,793 yards and ran for 559, giving him the second-highest total yards in a season in program history.
As those numbers fell off last season through both ineffective play early in the season and injury late, Lewerke said he let it get to him. It something he’s determined to not let happen in his final season with the Spartans.
“Just being positive and enthusiastic,” Lewerke said. “Obviously last year was kind of a tough year for me. I think it, maybe, affected the whole team. My attitude could have been better, I think. (Dantonio) wants me to be more positive, more lively for the entire team.”
It comes with the position, Dantonio said.
“Quarterback is such an inspiring position,” Dantonio said. “You need to inspire people. It’s not just having confidence in yourself. I don't care if you're the one, two, three, or four, you have to inspire other people and your body language has to say so. I think he'll be ready to go.”
If he is, Michigan State should be in position to compete in the Big Ten East and have a shot at getting back to the conference championship game for the first time since 2015.
It won’t all be on Lewerke. The Spartans will need a jump from the offensive line and for a running back or two to emerge, but with one of the top defenses in the nation, even a moderate improvement from the offense could be critical.
After Saturday, it looks like Lewerke has a chance to be the catalyst for that improvement.
“I don’t think he lost his confidence,” Heyward said of Lewerke. “He played through injury last year and everyone is not perfect. We’re all 100-percent behind Brian. When he’s 100 percent mentally and physically he’s a force to be reckoned with.”