Senior Spartans set out to keep ring streak alive under Mark Dantonio
East Lansing — Brian Lewerke has a championship ring.
Raequan Williams has one, too. So does Kenny Willekes.
But something is different about theirs.
“It’s kind of a free ring,” Lewerke said on Thursday as Michigan State wrapped up preseason camp.
Free because Lewerke didn’t play that 2015 season. Neither did Williams nor Willekes nor eight other freshmen who were sitting out their first season as Spartans.
To be more specific, none of them played in a game. But you can bet every one of them was out there on the practice field every week, watching their more experienced teammates march to a Big Ten championship while rolling up memorable wins over Michigan and Ohio State before beating Iowa in the conference title game to reach the College Football Playoff.
Fast forward to the final season of their career and that group is out looking for a championship they can call their “own” while helping four-year seniors like Joe Bachie and Mike Panasiuk avoid being part of the first recruiting class under Mark Dantonio to not bring home a championship.
“I hadn't really even thought about until Coach D mentioned that in one of our team meetings,” Lewerke said. “It kind of hit me, ‘Man there's only a couple of us fifth-years left on the team that were a part of that team.’ None of us really played in that game, so it’s kind of a free ring and we kind of want to earn one ourselves and earn one for everyone else on this team.”
It might not be what everyone else around the Big Ten is talking about, but you can bet it’s what is being talked about around the Spartans’ locker room.
As Lewerke and Bachie were named captains for the second straight year on Thursday along with Willekes and Williams, both first-time captains, the goal was clear — get back to Indianapolis and put the frustration of the last three seasons in the history books.
“In the senior speeches you hear these fifth-year guys talk about their best moment and best memory,” said Bachie, who arrived on campus the next summer as part of the 2016 class. “A bunch of the guys brought up the 2015 Big Ten championship and what it was like in Indy, what it was like to win that one, what the feeling was, and you know, we just want to relive that.
“The guys who haven't been there, we want to get there and leave a great legacy behind. That's our goal right now.”
Michigan State, ranked No. 18 in the preseason Associated Press poll, will need to reach that goal to keep Dantonio’s streak alive. Since taking over before the 2007 season, every one of Dantonio’s classes has won at least one title in their careers.
The first conference championship came in 2010 followed by 2013 and again in 2015. Time’s running out for Bachie and Panasiuk, though the rest of their class that remains on the roster will get another shot next season. But that might feel a bit hollow without the two best players from that group.
“Here’s the message to our football team: Every single player that has come to Michigan State since 2007 has a ring on their finger — championship ring on their finger — with the exception of the 2016 class,” Dantonio said. “There’s something to shoot for.”
The experience Michigan State has gained since that last Big Ten title was clear on Thursday with the naming of the captains. All four players are entering their third season as starters and all four have seen their share of ups and downs.
After reaching the playoffs in 2015, the Spartans suffered through the 3-9 struggle of 2016. They bounced back with 10 wins in 2017 but fell back last season, finishing at 7-6 and leading to plenty of questions surrounding the offense heading into 2019.
Of course, that puts plenty of pressure on Lewerke, who had a breakout 2017 but was hampered by injuries last year.
“I think that when you go through tough times, I think it builds character, to be quite honest with you,” Dantonio said. “He (Lewerke) knows what to expect. He had injuries last year, there was some criticism when he did play, after the fact.
“I think that at the end of it all, it has to make you stronger. You have to use those things to allow yourself to become stronger and more resilient. I think he’s become that. I think he’s had a great camp. I think he’s ready to go; he’s very healthy and he looks like he’s returned to what he’s been.”
What he’s been might be just what Michigan State needs to keep the championship run going. Lewerke passed for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore while running for 559 yards and five more scores. It was good for the second-most total yards in program history.
A repeat performance will almost certainly spark the offense beginning in the Aug. 30 season opener against Tulsa. Along with a dominant defense and the Spartans might be ready to match what the fifth-year guys saw in their first season.
“I feel like everybody in the whole locker room knows that,” Williams said. “The goal is to win a Big Ten championship. I was around (in 2015). I know the practice habits they had and the way they went about their business that year.
"Being able to see it and bringing it to this year's team…But this team is a bit more intense about it, you know? It’s a great feeling, seeing those same aspects of the guys bringing that and feeling in the practice.”