Impact Sports is kicking off their 2017 college football preview coverage this week. The Spartan Red Zone crew will give you a series of assessments on each position group for Michigan State football, starting with the wideouts and tight ends on Sunday. Today’s preview features the quarterback position.
After producing two NFL-level quarterbacks in the early part of this decade, the quarterback position at Michigan State was far too up-and-down in 2016. When the offense was clicking, the Spartans put up solid offensive performances against teams such as Northwestern and Michigan. Perhaps their most frustrating performance of the season came against Maryland on the road, scoring just 17 points against S&P’s 79th ranked defense.
Senior Tyler O’Connor took the reins early in the season and was solid, if unspectacular, against Furman and Notre Dame early in the year. However, the big matchup against No. 11 Wisconsin exposed O’Connor’s habit to stare down receivers, and mounting turnovers forced him out of a starting spot.
In his place stepped Brian Lewerke. It is easy to forget that the former four-star recruit played in just four games last season, suffering a season-ending injury against Michigan. At times, the results were not pretty, as can be expected for a redshirt freshman quarterback. That said, it seems as though fans were more willing to give Lewerke the benefit of the doubt, and it showed.
While Lewerke did not blow O’Connor’s numbers away, No. 14 had an edge in his decision-making with the football. Lower interception rates and lower sack rates were the most important numbers where he had O’Connor beat. At times, O’Connor struggled to avoid getting picked off, and this allowed defenses to prey on MSU’s lack of inventive playcalling. Offensive coordinator Dave Warner is back for another season, but if his gameplan is still stuck in 2016, he may not be around for 2018.
How Warner can use his starting quarterback to the Spartans’ advantage is best displayed by another key strength of Lewerke’s: his foot speed. While he will never display high top-end speed to blow by defenders, Lewerke is at minimum deceptively quick in the open field. In 18 non-sack rushes last season, Lewerke picked up 169 yards, good for an average of 9.4 yards a carry. If he gets moved away from the pocket, there are chances for him to pick up first downs on the ground. His mobility can also help escape pass rushes and keep his eyes downfield.
That said, Lewerke will not be setting the world on fire through the air. Here’s a look at his game log through the air, exempting garbage-time minutes against Wisconsin, last year:
That is nowhere near elite production, that much is not up for debate. Much of MSU’s fate on offense this season will rely on Lewerke’s development as a passer throughout the season. His lone passing touchdown came against Northwestern to Josiah Price, who has graduated. Things did look a little better in the spring game, as Lewerke connected with probable starting wideout Trishton Jackson. That connection will have to play a major part in the Spartan offense for any hopes of success.
If Lewerke cannot manage to play up to par, the depth chart behind him is still being figured out in the preseason practices. Senior Damion Terry goes into another season as the backup, having never really quite figured out how to effectively throw the ball. He dressed for the spring game but did not play. Redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver was smartly held out of any garbage time minutes last year to keep his redshirt intact, and the former four-star recruit will look to rebound from an injury in March that also kept him out of the spring game.
It is difficult to assess how good Lewerke truly is. At times last season, it felt as though anything was an upgrade over the frustrating O’Connor. If the position groups around Lewerke can improve, it may have an added effect on the sophomore, as the expectations from the coaching staff don’t include winning games all by himself. Having LJ Scott to hand the ball off to will not hurt, and if the offensive line can stay consistent throughout the entire season, there are chances for the workload to ease off of Lewerke’s shoulders.
That said, he comes into 2017 with a relatively low ceiling of expectations. The quarterback position has taken on greater importance in recent years, so if Lewerke steps out on Sept. 2 a step behind, the Spartan offense will continue their inefficient ways of last year.