Junior quarterback Brian Lewerke was faced with turning MSU football around in 2017 after the program went 3-9 the previous season.
He succeeded by leading it to 10-3 season and a 45-17 Holiday Bowl win over Washington State to get Mark Dantonio’s 100th career win at MSU.
The Phoenix native broke several program records last season as well: most passing yards in a game with 445 against Northwestern, to go along with 475 total offensive yards for a player and he was the first quarterback to throw for more than 2,500 yards (2,793) and rush for more than 500 yards (559) in MSU history.
The following week after Northwestern, in a weather-delayed 27-24 win over Penn State, he threw for 400 yards, making him the lone quarterback in Spartan history to throw for 400 yards or more in back-to-back games, and the third Big Ten quarterback to do that in the past 20 years. The other two? Purdue’s Drew Brees in 1998 and Northwestern’s C.J. Bacher in 2007.
“I thought he sort of took off, and again, much like I just talked about, he got better and better as the season went,” Dantonio said at MSU’s media day. “I think what he had to improve on is knowing where to go with the football, his reads, being consistent with that, and then also, a little bit of patience. He got out of the pocket. He made things happen. I think that's the beauty of it. He can create.”
And according to his teammates and coaches, he’s been getting better. Which is expected for someone who was handed the reigns of the offense in their sophomore year and was given the nickname “White Lightning” after MSU’s 28-14 win over Western Michigan on Sept. 9, rushing for 81 yards and two touchdowns, including a 61-yard touchdown run.
“Brian Lewerke is a great guy, I mean he’s developed so much," junior wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. said at MSU’s media day. “He’s only gotten better. If you guys was able to come to practices and see him throw — he looks amazing. He’s a top-tier quarterback.”
All of these accolades — along with much more — brings me to one point: Brian Lewerke can establish himself as the greatest MSU quarterback in program history this season over the likes of Kirk Cousins, Connor Cook, Jeff Smoker and Drew Stanton.
I say this, however, with acknowledging he needs to improve in some areas, such as downfield accuracy, decision making and being smarter when scrambling.
But Lewerke knows he needs to work on these skill sets.
“One thing I focus on is not escaping outside the (defensive) ends. If I need to escape, go up, step up in the pocket,” Lewerke said on MSU’s media day. “And if I have a lane I’m gonna go run for it. But I’m looking to keep my eyes downfield, trying to find someone downfield.”
Being smarter when scrambling and decision making, check.
Downfield and overall throwing accuracy? We’ll see after the first four or so games. But he knows people got on him for it, after finishing with a .590 completion percentage in 2017, which ranked sixth among Big Ten quarterbacks.
“I worked a lot on my accuracy, trying to improve that,” Lewerke said. “I think that was a big aspect of my game — that was knocked on my game last year. So as long as I fix that and get to that .650 percent (completion) range, that’s big for me.”
That .650 completion percentage is also a part of his goals he’s set for himself, to go along with 3,000 or more passing yards and 25 or more touchdowns.
All of which will help spearhead the offense’s two main goals this season: Scoring more points and red zone efficiency. The Spartans scored 24.5 points per game (96th in FBS) and scored on 82 percent of red zone opportunities (T-79th in FBS)
“Those are our two big goals… We know that we need to score more points — we didn’t do enough,” Lewerke said. “That 2014 team that had 43 (points) a game was insane. As (senior) Felton (Davis III) would say — they have some of the records up in the weight room and I look up and look at it too and I’m like, ‘Man, 43 is wild.’ That’s where we need to be if we need to be a successful team.”
Even early on in fall camp, quarterbacks coach Brad Salem noticed Lewerke’s goals and how he’s starting to know the offense better. Starting to iron out the fine little details that can make a good quarterback even better.
“But you see the understanding of the offense, and you see the confidence of knowing the offense,” Salem said. “And you start seeing him even in fall camp, really just making certain checks and getting in a good play, out of a bad play. You see him really growing as a leader and as a person.”
And having a year of experience, also allows you to direct others easier, Lewerke said. It allows him to tell players what is right and what is wrong.
“Just getting older, you feel more sense of command just being one of the older guys, being more experienced,” he said. “You can tell the younger guys how to do this, how to do that and the right way to do things and the wrong way. I think age is a big factor in all of it.”
Age also is allowing him to become a more vocal leader, something that’s a must in every great quarterback. A great communicator. Which, growing up, wasn’t the case for Lewerke.
“I was always a shy kid when I grew up," Lewerke, 21, said. “I wasn’t really a talkative person. And I think as I’ve gotten older, I just become more comfortable with my surroundings and being in East Lansing.
"I love living here, so that helps. Just become more confident in myself and being more talkative is something that’s just happened over the past couple of years.”
Lewerke’s leadership skills have caught the attention of all of his teammates and Dantonio.
“I like his leadership style. I like how he handles himself in tough situations,” Dantonio said. “He doesn't take himself too seriously at times, which I think is a good thing and if he has a bad play, he can let it go and he can line back up and go again. Our players believe in him totally, so they have propped him up there in a good place I think, and I think it gives us a chance to win every time he takes a snap.”
Becoming a better leader, working on his few flaws he had his sophomore year and the entire team and coaching staff giving him the thumbs-up. Sounds like the make up for a breakout, record-breaking junior year. A year that could cement his legacy as the best quarterback in MSU history.
However, Lewerke isn’t letting being named to the preseason Maxwell Award and Davey O'Brien Award watch lists and the hype get too much into his head. He’s still focused on the on field product and not the outside noise.
“It’s pretty cool to see stuff like that,” he said. “Obviously you still have translate the hype onto the field, so that’s been something I’ve been focusing on. Living up to that. But that’s something that’ll come — if it happens. If not, then so be it. It’s an honor to have that.”
I’d put money on it happening.