East Lansing — Brian Lewerke insists things aren’t much different than they were a year ago.
Coming out of spring practice in 2017, Lewerke had won the job as Michigan State’s starting quarterback job and had the confidence of coach Mark Dantonio as well as the rest of the offensive staff. However, he hadn’t had significant playing time at that point, getting a couple of starts as a redshirt freshman in 2016 before a broken leg sidelined him.
So, entering 2017, much of that confidence was based purely on what the Spartans believed Lewerke was capable of.
That belief paid off as Lewerke led Michigan State to 10 victories and a second-place finish in the Big Ten East while rolling up 3,352 total yards of offense, the second-most in program history.
The next step for Lewerke is a big one. The Spartans return virtually their entire starting lineup and figure to be in the mix again to win the Big Ten East and reach the conference championship game. And Lewerke taking that step from solid young quarterback to star quarterback might be the most important for Michigan State heading into the 2018 season.
It’s something that looked possible this spring as Lewerke flashed his improved accuracy, especially on deep balls as he connected with Darrell Stewart on a 30-yard touchdown.
“He’s really just moving to the next phase of being a great quarterback,” quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. “He’s done a great job, really with his footwork, and just his eye control through progression reads and just being really consistent putting the ball in the right place.”
For Lewerke, the approach to the game has remained the same as it was a year ago.
He has worked hard on improving his accuracy and constantly fine-tuning his footwork.
However, after starting all 13 games last season, he was at least able to see things a bit differently this spring.
“Preparation-wise it's not much different, you got to prepare the same way no matter what your position is,” Lewerke said. “For me, I was able to kind of analyze situations, more game-like, during practice and kind of using my game experience and pretend like everything going on in practice is a game and it kind of helps you develop yourself once the game time comes.”
Once it came in the spring game, Lewerke was right where he needed to be. He was 7-for-12 passing with the touchdown to Stewart as redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi and freshman Theo Day got plenty of work in Michigan State’s effort to lock down the backup spot.
But the real test for Lewerke will be in a little more than four months when the Spartans open the season at home against Utah State. It’s then that he’ll have the chance to show he’s ready for bigger things, getting the chance to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Connor Cook and Kirk Cousins.
Both Cousins and Cook had solid seasons in their first as a starter — not all that different from Lewerke — and each took a significant jump in their second season.
Cousins improved his completion percentage more than six percentage points from 2009 to 2010 and threw for more yards and touchdowns. Cook threw for nearly 500 more yards and two more touchdowns.
If that same sort of jump is coming from Lewerke, the Spartans could be setting themselves up for another Big Ten championship, as they did in 2010 in Cousins’ second year as a starter.
"I think Lewerke looks really, really good," Dantonio said last week. “He knows where to go with the ball and what to do. He can take off with it. He's established himself.”
He’s established himself as a quarterback that can beat teams with both his arm and with his feet. While he threw for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns, Lewerke ran for 559 yards and five more scores.
Heading into 2018, Lewerke is hoping to find the perfect balance for the Michigan State offense. With a stable of receivers — Felton Davis, Stewart and Cody White — all coming off big seasons and LJ Scott back for his senior season, the Spartans have the pieces to have an offense as potent as 2015 when they made the College Football Playoffs.
“Creating a two-headed monster with the passing and running attack I think is something we can do,” Lewerke said. “Get that balance and be proficient in both of those. Personally, I want to get my completion percentage up a little bit.”
If he does, he might match the jumps made by both Cousins and Cook. That would be lofty company as the Spartans won a pair of Big Ten championships under both Cousins and Cook.
Lewerke is still looking for his first, but coming out of spring, he’s confident the Spartans are headed in the right direction.
“Overall, I think we came together and kind of established our front five, established who the guys are that are going to be big for us this year,” Lewerke said. “Obviously (there are) things to switch around but I think we came together as an offense pretty well so far.”