It has been 496 days since Brian Lewerke last took a snap under center for the Michigan State Spartans. It has been even longer, 2,099 days, since he started his first fall camp as a freshman in East Lansing, though he would redshirt that season and play on the scout team while the Spartans went on to their third Big Ten title under then head coach Mark Dantonio, and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff.
In between those dates, when he was in East Lansing, Lewerke had a five-year career that saw him become the program’s all-time leader in total offense with 8,293 passing yards and 1,255 rushing yards. He started in 38 of his 41 games played in Green and White, and he threw for at least 400 yards in back-to-back games for the first time in Michigan State history in 2017.
It’s not only that he threw for 400 yard in back-to-back games, his 445 yards against Northwestern on Oct. 28, 2017, and then a week later throwing for exactly 400 yards against Penn State on Nov. 4 of that year, was just the third time a Big Ten quarterback had managed that feat in the past 20 seasons. Lewerke etched his name alongside Purdue’s Drew Brees and Northwestern’s C.J. Bacher.
Later as a senior, Lewerke completed a career-best 59.6 percent of his passes, while throwing for 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions behind a shaky offensive line that, while good at pass blocking, still forced him to rely heavily on his mobility at times. Lewerke definitely excelled on his feet as evidenced in the sacks allowed that year. In 2019, Michigan State tied for 17th in the country with eight other schools in sacks allowed, giving up just 18 on the season. The Spartans actually led the Big Ten in avoiding getting sacked with Lewerke under center.
Lewerke will return to the gridiron tonight for the first time in a game setting since his appearance in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California in January of 2020, the very venue that helped sell him on coming to East Lansing in the first place. Lewerke will be playing in The Spring League (TSL) for the Alphas (more on the league and game schedule later). The Spring League starts it season tonight at 7 p.m. EDT on FS1 with the Alphas taking on the Aviators. Ahead of the development league’s season, Lewerke spoke with me by phone about what he’s been up to since his time in a MSU uniform, what he hopes to get out of the upcoming season with The Spring League, and some of his favorite memories at Michigan State.
For a quick refresher for readers, following his MVP performance in the Pinstripe Bowl win over Wake Forest, Lewerke surprisingly went undrafted in the 2020 NFL Draft, but he was quickly signed as a free agent with the New England Patriots in the days following. It certainly didn’t help that COVID-19 put a damper on opportunities to show off for scouts leading up to the draft. While he was later waived right before fall camp, he was re-signed a few days later, before being cut again right before the start of the season.
The experience was still invaluable for Lewerke. When asked about playing under legendary head coach Bill Belichick, he mentioned some of his takeaways learning wise.
“Their offense is one of the most complex in the NFL,” Lewerke said. “Just learning how to read pre-snap coverage was a big thing with all those formations they have. They made it really easy to read the coverage the defense is running pre-snap. There are a specific bunch of tells they provided that I can use moving forward no matter the team I play for.”
Lewerke wasn’t the only former Spartan on the roster. The quarterback who straddled the end of the John L. Smith era and the beginning of the Dantonio era, Brian Hoyer (2005-2008), continued his long pro career with yet another season with the Patriots in 2020. What was it like getting to work with a former Spartan?
“It was great having another MSU guy who knew what MSU football was all about,” Lewerke said. “Even though he didn’t really play for Coach D (for that long), he took me under his wing to help me learn the offense and do whatever he could to help me learn how to be a pro.”
Hoyer was the primary backup for the New England during training camp and early in the season for the Patriots behind starter Cam Newton. Lewerke grew up watching Newton at Auburn and later in the pros and enjoyed the experience of working with him as well.
“It was cool getting to work with him as I watched Cam Newton growing up and seeing his success in college and then the NFL,” Lewerke said. “He’s one of those dudes who loves to mess around. He was serious when needed, but he also kept the QB room fresh, smiling, and laughing.”
Following the Patriots cutting him prior to the start of the regular season, Lewerke’s efforts to join another NFL team’s roster were greatly stymied by COVID-19 protocols. League health rules that required a team to bring a prospect in and isolate him for an entire week before a tryout really limited opportunities for free agents. However, a return home to Arizona for the offseason certainly helped with training versus the cold winters and heavy snowfall of Michigan winters.
Asked about the challenges health protocols posed to staying game ready, Lewerke said: “Once the season was over, not as much as you might think. They were limited to just five rookie tryouts per team’s minicamp and that made it different. The toughest thing was just finding a spot to work out that’s open. I was also able to work with my QB Coach here throwing with him, thanks to Arizona having such great weather.”
With the offseason workouts more or less sorted out, how is it that Lewerke came to play with the Alphas in TSL this year?
“I talked with my agent about things to do,” Lewerke said. “Whether that be Canada or the XFL if that was still a thing. He mentioned The Spring League and that he’s friends with the head of it. He reached out to see if there was any interest in me among the teams and I connected with the coach of the Alphas (Peter Vaas).”
In addition, the short season wraps up just in time for training camps for the NFL and the goal is to use the experience to get an invite.
QB @brianlewerke14 is headed back to @B1Gfootball country! The @MSU_Football all-time leader in total yards from scrimmage will quarterback the Alphas at #TSL2021. He spent parts of 2020 with the @Patriots. pic.twitter.com/cXNtPHe2LN— The Spring League (@TheSpringLeague) April 27, 2021
Lewerke is most excited about the opportunity to play under head coach Peter Vaas. He credits Vaas as “knowledgeable” and mentions the things the Alphas do on offense are beneficial for him. Lewerke specifically mentioned how he can “read off and can extend the play whenever I need to.”
Coach Vaas was the Holy Cross quarterback from 1971 through 1973 in his college days before going onto a college and NFL Europe coaching career that spanned from 1974 through his last stint in 2012 as the tight ends coach at South Florida. Later, Vaas signed on as an offensive coordinator with the now-defunct XFL league.
As for what he is hoping to get out of the experience playing in The Spring League? The biggest goal is to get true game action film for teams.
“I haven’t been able to play since the Pinstripe Bowl and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl,” Lewerke said. “I don’t have a lot of recent film to give them in a game-like setting and this does that.”
What about the experiences gained at Michigan State? Changing topics a bit, I asked Lewerke if there were any specific lessons or skills he felt Coach Dantonio and the other MSU coaching staff taught him that resonate still today and that he can bring to TSL season.
“Yeah, a bunch,” Lewerke said. “Coach D always had his little phrases he would use. Coach (Brad) Salem, I loved playing for him for four years before he switched with Coach (Dave) Warner. All three pressed on me how to be a college quarterback, and more than that taught me about how to be a leader, to be a man, and how to fight through adversity, which I had a lot of at Michigan State.”
Speaking of Michigan State, what was it like for him being back on campus for this year’s pro day, particularly with the new coaching staff there?
“It obviously was different,” Lewerke said. “I hadn’t met anyone there on the coaching staff, but I was able to meet Coach (Jay) Johnson and talk about stuff they were doing. Having a whole new staff was obviously a little different. It was fun to be back in East Lansing and to see some of the guys I played with that are still there and some of the guys in my class that came back for pro day as well.”
Was it a success at getting calls from any of the teams in the NFL, though? “No, not yet,” according to Lewerke. That is also why he wanted to do The Spring League this year.
“They (NFL Scouts) have seen me throw shorts for a year and they want to see me do real, game like action which led into why I wanted to do this (play in The Spring League).”
Having already pivoted back to East Lansing, I proceeded to probe Lewerke on some of his favorite games in particular. Probably to no one’s surprise, his favorite win was the 2017 rain-soaked victory over Michigan, but some of the other answers may or may not surprise readers.
As for that 14-10 win over Michigan in 2017 being the favorite?
“It was my first road game start that season and my first start against Michigan,” Lewerke said. “In the torrential downpour that we had to play through, we ended up winning that game at Michigan, and it started the season off on the right note and definitely my career there in East Lansing as well.”
As Coach Dantonio said heading back into the tunnel, at least regarding that night, “Where’d all those Wolverines go?!”
Changing tracks quickly, and maybe asking a less common question, Lewerke didn’t miss a beat telling me what game was his favorite loss while playing at Michigan State. In retrospect, the answer probably should have been easy to guess, but I would be lying if I said I assumed this would be it: Northwestern in 2017. Why the triple-overtime defeat?
“I had a really good game in that one as well,” Lewerke reminisced. “I had a bunch of yards, threw some great passes, and played really well while having a ton of fun. I think that game ended in triple-overtime and, while we had that one mistake at the end, it was still a super fun game.”
OK, so favorite win and favorite loss have been asked and answered. What about a favorite road venue? I think every Spartan fan out there will understand his choice: Penn State’s Beaver Stadium and it was clearly influenced by the raucous crowd and essentially walk-off touchdown catch thrown to Felton Davis III by Lewerke in the closing moments of the game.
“Beaver Stadium up at Penn State,” Lewerke said when asked. “We had that game up there in 2018 where we ended up winning that one, too. That’s my second favorite win besides Michigan, and that atmosphere is awesome and easily the loudest stadium I played in. When we had to drive down with less than a minute left I could barely hear myself think.”
Finally to close out our one-on-one, Lewerke talked a bit about what it’s like in moments off camera being a college football player at a high-profile program like Michigan State. What are some of the things fans don’t see on their television on game day that can encapsulate what it’s like to be a college student on the other end?
“There’s a bunch of fun moments,” Lewerke said. “From being in the locker room after any win, which is awesome, to even after practice it’s just a ton of fun hanging out with those guys. It sucks not being able to see them every day because you do that for four and a half to five years and then you go to not seeing them for at least a couple months at a time.”
Some of the other things besides the camaraderie of friendship it builds? Well, he definitely has been recognized more than once.
“Being recognized in public is kind of cool,” he says. “I would go to a Lions game a couple times and people would recognize me. Then one time my sister also had a professor at MSU who recognized her last name and asked if she was any relation.”
I had a great time reading to the 1st grade class at Resurrection School today pic.twitter.com/6RNKbtcNzg— Brian Lewerke (@brianlewerke14) March 6, 2017
As for the return to action on the football field? Lewerke will be on the roster for the Alphas alongside former Georgia Tech and James Madison quarterback Vad Lee, and they will be playing their games at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
First look at the #TSLAlphas roster at #TSL2021!— The Spring League (@TheSpringLeague) May 3, 2021
The Alphas will take on the Aviators in the first game of #TheSpringLeague season from @LucasOilStadium at 7 pm ET on Thursday, May 6! The game will air on @FS1.
Tickets can be purchased here: https://t.co/qsEH1IockC pic.twitter.com/2XksaQtIRS
For those who may not be familiar with The Spring League:
The Spring League enters its fifth season in 2021 as the premier professional football development league in the United States and abroad. Founded by Brian Woods in 2017, the League consists of eight teams and serves as a platform for player development, a training ground for future NFL coaches and game officials, and an incubator for new technology. Since its launch in 2017, The Spring League has seen over 200 players signed by NFL and CFL teams. For more information, please visit: https://www.thespringleague.com/.
This season, the league expanded by two teams and has all games broadcast on either FOX, FS1 or FS2. Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis will host TSL’s North Division, comprised of the Alphas, Aviators, Linemen, and Conquerors. Meanwhile, the South Division, comprised of the Blues, Generals, Jousters, and Sea Lions, will be play at Rice Stadium in Houston. You can find the full broadcast schedule below.