The only problem with turning back the clock is knowing when to stop. And where to start.
But for Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, the simplest solution is to go back to a place that paints a rosier picture for the Spartans’ immediate future.
That’d be the offseason following a frustrating 2012 season, when Michigan State stumbled to a 7-6 finish and critics weren’t sure where the program was headed next. The answer, as we all know now, was a 13-1 record and a Rose Bowl championship in 2013. But at the time, there were myriad concerns, including one that rings true again as the Spartans, who begin fall practice Thursday in East Lansing, try to rebound once more.
“Quarterback play was suspect in ’12,” Dantonio told reporters at last month’s Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon. “Quarterback play was suspect in ’18.”
And if you’re looking for the key to a similar turnaround this fall, you might as well start there, with the usual suspect: The quarterback.
Michigan State’s strength heading into this season is unquestionably its stacked defense, much as it was in 2013 when the Spartans relied on a top-five unit to lead the way. But if Dantonio’s team is going to rebound from last year’s 7-6 finish in similar fashion, it’ll require a bounce-back performance from fifth-year senior Brian Lewerke, who is coming off an ineffective and injury-plagued 2018.
“I know a lot of people are counting (him) out, but he’s our guy,” said senior linebacker Joe Bachie, one of the Spartans’ returning captains. “You’re gonna see a healthy Brian Lewerke again.”
Season goes to health
Through six games last fall, Lewerke had thrown for nearly 1,600 yards with a 61.4-percent completion rate, but he’d also racked up as many interceptions (seven) as he had in a breakout 2017. He’d also suffered a shoulder injury late in that sixth game, just prior to tossing a game-winning touchdown pass against Penn State.
And from there, things quickly unraveled. Lewerke tried to play through the injury against Michigan the following week and the result was an awful showing (5-of-25 for 66 yards) that forced Dantonio to turn to redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi.
And though Lewerke’s backup had an impressive debut the following week against one of the nation’s worst pass defenses in Purdue, neither quarterback was effective the rest of the season as injuries decimated other position groups as well — receiver, running back, offensive line.
The quarterbacks combined to complete barely 40 percent of their passes with one touchdown and six interceptions over the final month of the regular season. Lewerke, whose throwing mechanics were a mess, wasn’t much better in the Redbox Bowl loss to Oregon, either, as the Spartans failed to score a touchdown for the third time in their final four games.
“Even though everybody’s saying he’s the reason we’re losing, he still came out there and played hard for us,” said Raequan Williams, the Spartans’ All-Big Ten defensive tackle. “So that means everything. And that message didn’t (go unnoticed by) the team. The team knew Brian was out there breaking his neck for us, and we loved that fact that he was doing it for us.”
No one loved the results, however. Only four FBS teams scored fewer points per game last season than Michigan State (18.7), and only three ranked lower in passing efficiency. Michigan State also ranked 114th or worse (out of 129 teams) in rushing offense, third-down offense and total offense.
Yet instead of cleaning house with staff changes, Dantonio instead opted to rearrange the furniture. He shuffled responsibilities within his offensive staff, and among the handful of changes was a promotion for Brad Salem to offensive coordinator over Dave Warner, who’ll revert back to coaching the quarterbacks.
Along with those changes, there’s also a revamped offensive scheme, though up to this point Dantonio has declined to go into details, other than to say, “I think people will notice a difference.” When pressed for more specifics last month in Chicago, he smiled and steered the conversation away to his cufflinks — the ones Biggie Munn wore as Michigan State’s coach back in the 1950s
Still, there were glimpses of the future going as far back as the bowl game, with more no-huddle snaps and one-back looks using the pistol formation. And again in the Spartans’ spring game in April, after which Lewerke endorsed Salem’s “newer-age type of offense,” one that’ll likely feature more run-pass options and zone reads — utilizing Lewerke's mobility as a weapon — and probably a bit more tempo.
“But how do you get good at anything? You have to repeat things,” Dantonio said. “Repetition is the key to execution. You’ve got to rep things. You can’t just say, ‘Hey, run that play.’ It doesn’t work like that. There’s gotta be a foundation there.
“I think our offensive coaches have done a great job revamping our system and philosophy. And now we have to put that into more of a week-to-week, game-to-game type of situation.”
That’s the task now as camp begins with a much healthier offensive roster and a experienced signal-caller who still has NFL aspirations.
Dantonio points to the success Lewerke had as a redshirt sophomore two years ago, when he was an “extremely productive player” and became the first quarterback in program history to pass for more than 2,500 yards and rush for more than 500 yards in the same season.
He also cites an intangible, one that teammates have noted as well from spring practice through summer workouts.
“I think his confidence is back,” Dantonio said. “He certainly is back and healthy. He's bigger and stronger, he's faster.”
He also comes in with a backup who gained experience last year in Lombardi, though Dantonio was quick to dispel the notion the starting job is up for grabs.
“They'll compete to some degree, but right now Brian is our No. 1 quarterback,” the coach said, “and I expect great things from him.”
So does Lewerke, for what it’s worth. He says he’s finally able to trust his arm again to make the throws he’ll have to make to win games this fall. And he’s even more aware of just what it means to be the leader of a team at his position, projecting positivity and enthusiasm.
“Obviously, last year was kind of a tough year for me,” he said. “It kind of affected the whole team. My attitude could’ve been better, I think. … There definitely was frustration. I just had to work through it.”
And now that he has, he’s back to work on proving it.