Following an uncertain spring, fresh Spartan leadership aims for 'player-led' team
For a program that has seen the highest of highs — the Cotton Bowl Classics, the Rose Bowl, the College Football Playoff — the decline to mediocrity has been undeniably quicker, ruthless.
MSU was regarded as one of the up-and-coming premier teams in the nation. The path to fame and fortune was laid down by head coach Mark Dantonio, as his squads quickly became a household name nationwide.
Then, reality smacked a Spartan team in the form of the 2016 season. The months blended together into one treacherous period, starting with the embarrassing 3-9 record. The follow-up campaign was seemingly a farce after MSU claimed to be the Big Ten's best in 2015.
Stemming from an alleged sexual assault Jan. 16, multiple investigations surrounding the team bogged down the program once the offseason hit. Another separate incident in April further clouded MSU's public perception as murmurs were aplenty.
As rumors swirled on who the three players were, there was little to no media contact during the team’s allotted spring practices. Only Dantonio spoke after the Green and White spring game, a sharp contrast to 2016 when the program blitzed through player availability.
Amid the silence, the trio of investigations from the Jan. 16 incident — a Title IX probe, a criminal investigation by the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office and the Jones Day report — concluded in late-May, spilling over into early-June.
As the news and names of the three players broke, Dantonio and Athletic Director Mark Hollis took the podium June 6, addressing the issue at hand.
The three student-athletes — Donnie Corley, Josh King and Demetric Vance — were dismissed from the team after being charged by the Ingham County Prosecutor's Office. Another player from the separate April incident, Auston Robertson, was let go from the program after an alleged rape.
Following the conclusion of an uncertain period for the program, Dantonio said the team would be “back in business" during the press conference June 6.
Just a week later, it was exactly that. MSU held a rare June media availability at the Skandalaris Football Center. Among a swarm of press members, Dantonio and a variety of players were thrown into the line of questioning.
The athletes ranged from fifth-year veterans to freshmen just arriving on campus. An updated roster with the 2017 recruiting class was given to the media, along with the omission of some players.
The Spartans now head into a crucial offseason, one where they look to rebound after the hardships on and off the field. From the ultimate leader's perspective, it's on the entire team to rebound from the adversity.
“I think any time that you have things that go on in your program you got to regroup,” Dantonio said. “That’s everybody’s responsibility. So that’s what we’ll do. We’ve had situations before and we’ll regroup and drive forward and put our foot on the ground and plant it and drive forward.”
Spartan leadership takes a turn
Every year, among the 100 or so Spartans who earn the right to don the green and white, a specific 12 are selected to shine as an example for teammates. That group, known as the Eagle Council, comprise MSU's core leadership group.
As the Spartans head into 2017 desperately looking to restore their image, they'll do so without the luxury of a senior-led team. Just last season, 10 of the 12 Spartans on the 2016 Eagle Council were seniors.
Of the other two, only one is still a Spartan — offensive lineman Brian Allen. Former linebacker Jon Reschke left the program in February after an “insensitive and totally regrettable comment.”
For the second straight year, the Eagle Council is comprised of a vast majority of first-time members. Last year, former linebacker Riley Bullough was the only returning Spartan of the group.
Now, just 12 Spartans call 2017 their senior year. Some will see the field as starters, others are bound to the scout squad, contributing behind the scenes.
“There’s no question we don’t have a senior-laden team,” Dantonio said. “Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s not so good. We’ll find out. It gives other people an opportunity to grow in their leadership area.”
A Spartan’s senior season has to be his best — it’s a philosophy Dantonio preaches each and every year. Luckily for MSU, despite the meager senior total, it's well-equipped to rely on a pair of upperclassmen to help guide the team despite the recent rough stretch.
During the 2017 Green and White spring game, two Spartans faced off in a friendly game of rock, paper, scissors instead of the traditional coin flip. While the outcome of it ultimately didn’t matter — as the scrimmage was a simple defense vs. offense format — the players partaking in the duel did.
The two captains of the game, Allen and linebacker Chris Frey, met midfield at the Spartan logo before the game. Between the two, they've seen the bowl games, the Big Ten titles and the grueling stretch that was the 3-9 season.
Undoubtedly, they’ll look to rebuild the type of team camaraderie necessary to win football games again.
“(Regaining chemistry) starts with the seniors and the leaders on this team,” Frey said. “We’re really working on that and I think we’re at a higher level of team chemistry than we had been in the past year.”
Damion Terry, one of the few seniors on the squad, said the example Dantonio sets for the entire program is one the players are readily able to feed off of.
"We got the right guys in place and it all starts at the top with Coach D," Terry said. "We got one of the best leaders in the Big Ten and in the country. So we’re following his lead, and then we just kind of trickle that down into our locker room, because Coach D always says a player-led team is the best kind of team."
While murmurs of the Spartans lacking leadership in 2016 persist, Dantonio said he'll continue to instill a similar philosophy into his football program that goes beyond the gridiron. The popular idea of a player-led team trumping a coach-led team will continue, the head coach said.
"It's just my feeling, that our players, our captains have to lead our players and they should be player-voted, so we’ll do that,” Dantonio said. “We’ve done a lot of things, unique things I think in that area to try and put a spotlight on, ‘Hey, what does your teammate think about you as a person, as a player, as a student?’ So we’re going to continue to do that.”
All eyes on the quarterback
Whilst sweeping change marks the Spartan locker room, there is one constant Dantonio has preached all of spring football — Brian Lewerke is the man.
After a broken tibia prematurely ended his season, the redshirt-sophomore played in just four total games in 2016. But he’s back, and for at least the foreseeable future, Lewerke is the starting quarterback.
“(I’m) definitely (up for the challenge as the No. 1 quarterback),” Lewerke said. “I mean this is the reason I came here. The reason I came all the way from Arizona was for this specific reason, so definitely.”
During the spring game, both of Lewerke's direct competitors in Terry and redshirt-freshman Messiah deWeaver were sidelined with injuries. While both figure to be back in the mix, Lewerke is firmly planted at the top of the depth chart.
“Being a young guy, I know a lot of people listen to (Lewerke), and the good thing is he has command of the huddle,” Allen said of the quarterback April 28 during a separate media availability. “I’ve seen it where guys have come in and that hasn’t been the case and they haven’t been able to communicate to 10 other guys. He does a really good job of getting the plays and coming off clear and communicating well. It gives guys confidence when you see him with confidence.”
Lewerke, in the limited action he saw during the 2016 season, showed flashes of talent, most notably in the game against the University of Michigan. The Phoenix native went 6-for-10, throwing for 100 yards and a touchdown, before leaving the game and season due to the broken tibia.
More notably, Lewerke moved the ball down the field effectively against the vaunted Michigan defense, a group ranked one of the best in the nation.
“Last year I got a nice little feel for the game, being able to start a couple of games,” Lewerke said. “So I think definitely last year’s experience will help me out for this upcoming season, being able to not have the same jitters that I had last year. It’ll be a little better, a little more calm.”
While Lewerke received spotty playing time as a redshirt-freshman, it’s clear he brings a different weapon to the Spartan offense — speed.
If, and inevitably when, a play breaks down, Lewerke can scramble and pick up crucial yards. The signal-caller rushed 21 times in 2016, picking up 149 yards along the way.
As Lewerke enters his first year as the starting quarterback, he said he'll look to make strides as a leader to strengthen that role of his game.
“I’ve been here for now going on my third year, so I think it’s a pretty decent amount of time to be able to establish yourself as a leader,” Lewerke said.
Steps to 2017 and beyond
With the offseason hitting the Spartans full stride, the shift in leadership and personnel continues as kickoff creeps suddenly closer.
As far as goals for the 2017 season goes, Frey said the leaders of the team have implemented a system where objectives of every player are featured.
“We as leaders and Eagles have been trying to get younger guys to talk, guys that don’t talk as much,” Frey said. “We all met up, split up guys on the team into smaller groups and we all gave everybody a goal card. Everybody’s going to come up with their own goals, personal goals and team goals. So we can all think about that and share our goals for the team with everybody.”
While the Spartans were busy winning championships and dominating the Big Ten, they often relied on the “chip on the shoulder” mentality. The players, coaches and members surrounding the program quipped about the underdog aspect of the game.
Now, with MSU’s back against the wall and stock at a desperate low, Terry said the Spartans will embrace the toughness. Instead of dwelling on the past, Terry said the teachings of the program are bound to strengthen them.
“Everyone’s just looking at the Spartans right now, we’re kind of like a laughing-stock right now,” Terry said. “It’s just embarrassing. But we like it, I mean that’s how Spartans like it. We’re taught here we’re going to face adversity at some time.”
While Gerald Holmes, a redshirt-senior, said the team lacked leadership in 2016, there were painful messages to be learned from the experience of a 3-9 season.
“As bad as last year was, it definitely helps now,” Holmes said. “It was still a lesson at the end of the day, not a lesson that we all asked for, but we got the lesson. I feel like everybody in the locker room learned from it and we're making the changes."
Lewerke wouldn’t outright say 10 wins was the goal in 2017, but Frey was a different story. For a team that had forced and won its way into relevancy under Dantonio, victory — no matter the circumstance — is the ultimate goal, the senior linebacker said.
“We want to be (Big Ten) East champs, we want to be Big Ten champs, then we want to make the College Football Playoff,” Frey said. “That’s always going to be our goal no matter what. Doesn’t matter if we’re coming off a 3-9 season or if we’re coming off a 15-0 season, it doesn’t matter.”