Michigan State's Devontae Dobbs, Xavier Henderson, Cody White and Brian Lewerke talk about preparations for the season-opener. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — It’s not much of a secret — Michigan State will probably go as far as its offense will take it this season.
With a defense that should, once again, be among the best in the nation, the key to contending in the Big Ten East will lie firmly at the feet of an offense that was among the worst in the nation in 2018. There were plenty of reasons why the Spartans were so inept, and injuries were a big part, but with a revamped coaching staff and relatively good health — it is only two weeks into preseason camp — there is much more optimism.
“I think we’re hungry, I think we’re becoming much more confident in a lot of different respects,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “We’ve got a lot of live work against each other, and when you do that, there’s gonna be bumps and bruises, but we gotta find out some things, and we’re gonna do that and take those steps.
“You never know what’s going on until game day, I guess. On game day, you start to find out things as you move through the season.”
Dantonio was feeling that way after Michigan State’s offense won the first scrimmage of preseason camp. It came thanks to a late fourth-and-17 conversion in the red zone on a pass from redshirt freshman quarterback Theo Day to fifth-year senior Darrell Stewart Jr.
Was it a sign of the offense being on the verge of rediscovering the potency it had when Michigan State went through a three-year stretch from 2013-15 of winning two Big Ten titles and reaching the College Football Playoff?
Probably not but considering where things stood last season when the Spartans managed just two touchdowns in the final four games, it’s at least a step in the right direction.
“I think it was one of the best scrimmages that the offense has had during my entire five years here,” fifth-year senior quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “We came out hot, and never really lost a ton of momentum. We kept it going, and I think we all played very well.”
Lewerke has seen his share of scrimmages, including as a true freshman in 2015. He took a redshirt that season but saw the Connor Cook-led group operate at a high level. Things shifted in 2016 but Lewerke was at the helm in 2017 when the Spartans responded with 10 victories.
However, Lewerke is also one of the biggest question marks entering 2019. After playing more than half of last season with an injured shoulder, he’ll need to rediscover the form of 2017 that saw him throw for more than 2,700 yards and run for more than 500.
Two weeks in, Lewerke believes he’s on the right track.
“I think it has been pretty solid so far,” Lewerke said. “My arm feels good. I can sling the ball around and I try to challenge those DBs every day and give them the best look that I can, make the impossible throw that they can’t defend. I try and do that each and every day and get the ball to my guys.”
Those defensive backs are seeing the same thing.
“Brian Lewerke is great,” sophomore cornerback Shakur Brown said. “Playing against him every day is amazing because I get to work on my game every day playing against him.”
Sophomore safety Xavier Henderson is seeing similar results from the entire offense.
“They’re doing a good job and improving a lot,” Henderson said. “I’m loving what they are doing and I’m seeing improvement from all of the guys.”
What exactly the offense is doing under first-year coordinator Brad Salem remains a bit of a mystery. Lewerke nor any of the other offensive players have given many hints of what the Spartans will look like when the season kicks off.
But one thing is starting to become clear — most think Lewerke is ready to put 2018 in the past.
“He is making throws that you wouldn’t even think any quarterback can make, and he’s putting it in there,” junior wide receiver Cody White said. “He’s scrambling, getting out of the pocket, making plays for everybody. He’s looked great so far during this fall camp.
“I’ve been telling people all fall he’s got his swagger back. He’s bringing that leadership, bringing that vibe, bringing that energy, and it’s been great for the offense.”