East Lansing — With Michigan State students starting to bustle around town just nine days away from the fall semester, the football team is also almost ready for the grades that matter.
Brian Lewerke played the role of professor after Monday’s practice, saying the offense demonstrated during Friday’s scrimmage that it is catching up with the defense as the Aug. 31 season opener against Utah State beckons.
“Scrimmage one, I’d give it a C-minus, but the last scrimmage was a B-plus or A-minus,” he said, after being frustrated with his unit’s performance in the initial scrimmage the week before. “I think we definitely improved on the stuff we needed to.
“I think us, as an offense, and us, as a team, are ready to play.”
Still, the green jerseys stayed with the defense, which won in overtime in Friday’s second scrimmage by a slight margin — three points, according to defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, or two, Lewerke said.
“This one was very competitive, very close,” senior safety Khari Willis said. “We have a lot of guys who are capable of stepping in there, making plays. I’m confident in the guys that we have.”
A major spotlight this preseason camp has been on secondary depth, especially given the injury to starting cornerback Josiah Scott, who will miss time after a non-contact leg injury for the Spartans, ranked No. 11 by the Associated Press in Monday’s preseason poll.
Junior Josh Butler and redshirt freshman Shakur Brown are in the mix for those snaps.
“Everyone is competing for a spot in the defensive room,” Butler said. ”Just trying to get better every day, three percent every day, just focus on something.”
Tressel said senior safety Matt Morrissey is giving him confidence in the depth behind starters Willis and David Dowell, a returning first-team All-Big Ten pick by the media.
“You feel good having a third safety that’s playing on that high of a level,” Tressel said. “He’s at a point mentally where he feels like he knows what’s coming before it’s coming.”
Tressel also said freshmen, who can now play up to four games without burning a redshirt, should factor more on the field this season. He noted freshman Xavier Henderson has rotated in for nickel packages.
“We’re starting to get a feel for which freshmen are going to have an opportunity to get in the mix early,” Tressel said.
Butler said head coach Mark Dantonio flipped the field with sudden changes during the scrimmage. For instance, after a three-and-out, he would then suddenly put the ball at the 5-yard line, putting the defense on their heels.
After the frustrating opening scrimmage, the offense had its moments on Friday against the secondary.
Lewerke said junior wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. stood out, getting past the defense for a long catch and then making a one-handed catch in the end zone.
“He’s just making a lot of plays out there,” Lewerke said of Stewart, who had 50 catches for 501 yards last season, second to senior returner Felton Davis II in both categories.
The Spartans will meet fans at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Spartan Stadium, with autographs, games and giveaways at the free event.
Soon, Michigan State will take its first 2018 test against Utah State, which led Wisconsin 10-0 last season before giving up 59 straight to close the season-opening rout.
“We definitely want to hit someone other than our own teammates,” Willis said. “But I like hitting these guys too.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer