2017 midseason grades: Lewerke, offensive line main areas of growth for young offense

Kyle Turk

As No. 16 Michigan State inches past the midpoint of 2017, a year that has caught East Lansing and the college football world by surprise, Impact Sports is compiling midseason report cards and comparing them to our preseason predictions and assessments, mainly in an attempt to see how wrong we were about the much-improved Spartans.

The 2016 Spartan offense was pretty terrible by any method one can consider. Statistics, the eye test, whatever you name it: MSU couldn’t move the ball effectively. Coming into this year, our staff was apprehensive about the ability on the offensive side of the ball.


Preseason grade: C+
Mid-season grade: B

[su_quote cite=”Kyle Turk”]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.[/su_quote]

Well, I was slightly off here. Brian Lewerke has reeled off a 61-yard touchdown run, a 50-yard quarterback sneak and was the leading rusher in a few of MSU’s early games. Lewerke’s playmaking with his feet is slightly ahead of his accuracy throwing the football, but that is more a testament to his running ability than his decision-making while throwing.

[su_quote cite=”Kyle Turk”]Much of MSU’s fate on offense this season will rely on Lewerke’s development as a passer throughout the season….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.[/su_quote]

The changes to the receiving corps make a lot of this statement null and void, as Trishton Jackson has not lived up to the preseason hype so far. That said, Lewerke has shown flashes of arm strength. A couple of throws a game seem like pinpoint, NFL-level passes that Connor Cook or Kirk Cousins made early in their careers as well.

Outside of Notre Dame and Minnesota, Lewerke has avoided costly interceptions as well. He still does throw the occasional duck, but the problems of throwing balls at receivers’ feet while on the run has improved from the first couple of weeks. Throwing on the run is still a bit of a problem for Lewerke–he missed an open Laress Nelson for a touchdown on the opening drive against Indiana last Saturday–but those kinds of skills will progress over time. Lewerke isn’t winning games on his own yet, but he’s not losing them either–a solid start to a promising career.

Running Back

Preseason grade: B+
Mid-season grade: B

[su_quote cite=”Joey Ellis”]Scott has a similar playing style to that of former Spartan and Steeler standout running back Le’Veon Bell, being patient, initially waiting for a hole to open, and when it does, he’s one of the most aggressive runners in the Big Ten and incredibly tough to bring down on initial contact.[/su_quote]

Joey Ellis picked out a solid comparison for the last two weeks of play from LJ Scott as the featured back in MSU’s offense. Fumbles plagued Scott for the first few weeks of the season, as a major turning point in the Spartans’ loss to Notre Dame was Scott’s touchdown-turned-fumble. If Scott suffers a high-profile fumble against Penn State or Ohio State, I’d hate to see what the reaction from the fanbase is given his current off-the-field situation.

It makes one wonder if Scott was dealing with nagging injuries at the start of the season. After missing the Michigan game with an injury, Scott has bounced back and looked a lot more aggressive, nearly racking up 200 yards against Minnesota and averaging four yards a carry last weekend. This current version of Scott is the one that reminds you of his form towards the end of 2015, where he ran effectively against stout Iowa and Ohio State defenses. His major tests will come against Penn State on Nov. 4 and at Ohio State the following week.

[su_quote cite=”Joey Ellis”]While London was the starter for Michigan State just two short seasons ago, he’s taken a backseat to Holmes and Scott. Coming off an impressive spring game, London is looking to play a bigger role for the team in the upcoming season…he seems poised to bring that to the table as he looks to split more of the backup duties with Holmes.[/su_quote]

Madre London may not have the solid numbers that Scott brings to the table so far in 2017, but with Holmes’s recent injury, he has seen his touches increase as well. London is not going to try to run defenders over, and at times he has been able to hit a big play or two, including a 50-yard run at Michigan. However, his fumble against Indiana nearly cost MSU the game.

Gerald Holmes’s injury came at a time when he had an opportunity to play the role that Scott is playing right now. His performance against Michigan featured a physical approach that was reminiscent of his performance in Columbus in 2015, where he was MSU’s best running back in its upset of the Buckeyes. If he comes back against either Northwestern or Penn State and can provide the play he brought for a half at Michigan, the trio could be devastating.

Wide Receiver

Preseason grade: B-
Mid-season grade: B

[su_quote cite=”Andy Chmura”]It all starts with sophomore Trishton Jackson. [/su_quote]

Not quite.

[su_quote cite=”Andy Chmura”]Redshirt sophomore Cam Chambers also stood out as a major target. [/su_quote]

Almost there…

[su_quote cite=”Andy Chmura”]One option is Felton Davis III, who is now the most experienced receiver on the team. If this junior is looking for breakout year in a Spartan uniform, this is just about as good of a chance as he’ll get after catching 12 passes for 150 yards last season. [/su_quote]

There we go! Davis is having a career year so far, serving as a huge red-zone threat for Lewerke. His 6-foot-4 frame has been able to go up over defenders and create opportunities in the end zone, as he hauled in big touchdowns against Iowa and Indiana.

Davis’s emergence as one of this team’s biggest receivers speaks to the overall depth at this position, something we weren’t expecting three months ago. Darrell Stewart was hardly mentioned as anything more than a potential special teams guy, and Stewart has shown playmaking flashes in space at the other starting wide receiver spot so far this year.

I think Stewart has some unlocked potential that we’re not seeing yet, which keeps him ahead of guys like Chambers, who have unfortunately not really been able to see much of the field recently.

[su_quote cite=”Andy Chmura”]One other man to watch out for is true freshman Hunter Rison, son of former Spartan great Andre Rison. Rison comes into the fall as MSU’s highest-ranked recruit, rated four of five stars by 24/7 Sports’ Composite rankings, and the ninth best player in Michigan. Rison’s quickness and athleticism make him not only a downfield threat but also an option on screens and jet sweeps. By the time he graduates, he may be an RJ Shelton 2.0.”[/su_quote]

Rison has made a couple of big plays already, including two clutch late-game catches against Indiana. As long as he continues to find space and avoid drops, we may be seeing a lot more of Rison not just this year, but for the next couple as well.

What’s more, we managed to leave out Cody White completely. White’s play against Indiana is something that, if sustainable, has the potential to add a whole new layer to MSU’s offensive gameplan. Going forward as a de-facto third starting wide receiver, White’s speed and sure hands give MSU an option out of the slot on passing downs.

We also gave the tight end spot a C, and I feel inclined to update that to a B- given that Matt Sokol has gotten the job done so far, and Chase Gianacakos has delivered the necessary push on running plays as an extra blocker.

Offensive Line

Preseason grade: B-
Mid-season grade: B+

A B+ might seem high, but a lot of that has stemmed from solid push up front against two sneaky-good defenses in Minnesota and Indiana. Whether it was gameplan or execution, Brian Allen and company blew the Gophers off the ball and were able to do an adequate job against the Hoosiers.

[su_quote cite=”Joey Ellis”]“The production that the left side of the offensive line that Higby and Chewins showed before Higby went down against Rutgers has coaches optimistic about the protection that new quarterback Brian Lewerke will get from his blindside. After paving the way for a 277-yard rushing game against Rutgers, the left side of the offensive line with the Higby-Chewins tandem will be a major strength that’ll help out with a talented trio of running backs.” [/su_quote]

Chewins and Higby are doing as well as they did last season in terms of run blocking as a unit. However, Indiana’s underrated pass rush gave left tackle Chewins and right tackle Luke Campbell some trouble especially in the first half. They’re young, so they’re going to make mistakes, but the mistakes they have made have resulted in very few Lewerke sacks as of yet.

Penn State’s solid defensive line and Ohio State’s elite talent up front will be indicators of future success in a post-Allen world in 2018. Even then, maybe Matt Allen will be able to step right into his brother’s shoes a year from now.

[su_quote cite=”Joey Ellis”]Dantonio said that at least two true freshmen have a chance to play out of the band of Jordan Reid, Mustafa Khaleefah, Matt Carrick and Kevin Jarvis. Jarvis was rated four stars by Rivals.com heading into the season, and is the most likely of any of the true freshmen to see playing time. [/su_quote]

With David Beedle suffering from injuries at times, true freshman Kevin Jarvis has been pressed into duty at the right guard position, and Reid has seen time around the line. Usually, a true freshman on the offensive line in college is a major warning sign, but Jarvis has been able to pull it off. There have been times that Jarvis has shown his inexperience, allowing a big sack during MSU’s go-ahead touchdown drive last weekend, but on the whole there’s a lot to like about Jarvis’s future.