Michigan State Quarterback Brian Lewerke hasn't quite reached the point where his name is synonymous with the top QB prospects in the country. That honor goes to the likes of Oregon's Justin Herbert, Auburn's Jarrett Stidham and Missouri's Drew Lock.
For this Draft scout's money? You can have them all. My eyes are set firmly on the 6-foot-2, 212-pound Spartan as he enters his second season starting with the team. A redshirt junior, Lewerke will have a decision to make if the season goes according to plan.
Any looming choice Lewerke makes will be aided by a barren slate of senior passers, so the opportunity to jump could be ripe with more individual development. That developmental curve will be centered around a few games on the schedule specifically: October 20th vs. Michigan and November 10th vs. Ohio State.
In those two contests last year, Lewerke only managed to scratch out a 50% completion percentage while averaging 112 yards passing. But it does bear considering Ohio State romped the Spartans and scored touchdowns on five of their first six possessions, while the Spartans went 3 and out in their first four. And the Michigan contest turned into a rain soaked affair in the second half after Lewerke scored two touchdowns to produce a 14-3 halftime lead.
Context does matter, but of course it's important to see Lewerke rise to the occasion against top competition.
So with that questionable production and some inconsistent results on the field in mind, what is it about Lewerke's game that suggests he's a high caliber prospect? I'm glad you asked.
NFL anticipation and timing
The number one thing I'm hoping to see out of any QB prospect early on is their ability to understand when to throw the ball and where to throw the ball so it will reach his receiver effectively. In the six games of Lewerke that I studied (just about half of his starting resume), it was apparent that he isn't a "point and shoot" passer. Many college passers need to see their receiver has uncovered from the defender before they pull the trigger, but not Lewerke.
Much of what makes the above throw from Lewerke so great is outlined in the audio, so I would recommend turning the volume up for a full breakdown. But Lewerke's ability to hold the safety with his eyes as he hits the top of his drop, knowing he has an isolated receiver available is key. That provides the space to ensure no other defender interrupts his favorable match-up.
Brian ends up throwing the ball with a defender in his lap before his receiver, Felton Davis III, gets out of his break. It ends up right on the hands of Davis as he works back to the pylon, touchdown.
A terrific illustration of all the boxes NFL passers need to check in order to ensure they can win in tight spacing, in one play.
Of course, this is all for not unless Lewerke does this on a consistent basis. Any player can offer the glimpse of magic, but is it intentional deception of the defense?
The chess match between offense and defense is a layer of football that's easily missed. Anticipating moves before they happen allows for quick decisions under fire, such as this one from Lewerke in the team's bowl victory over Washington State.
The numbers on the line of scrimmage simply don't add up, so when Lewerke sees the play-side deep safety step down into the middle of the field on 3rd and 7 to adjust for a coming blitz, he understands that he (again, just like the red-zone rep vs. Northwestern) has an isolated man on man opportunity with no defender who can challenge the pass.
And again, the ball is out on time. No sooner does Lewerke's back foot hit the ground on his 3-step drop and he's initiated his throwing motion to loft a perfect slot fade up the numbers for a 1st down.
Natural arm talent
Secondary to the mental side of football, there is no greater need than that of a gifted arm. Generating heat on the ball from awkward angles, understanding flight trajectory and leverage of defenders, throwing with accuracy to various levels of the field, these are all important components of arm talent.
Lewerke's results in this area are not consistent yet, but there's no question the physical skill is present. Take this throw against Penn State, for example.
Note the trajectory on the ball. This is a toss that has some heat on it, but it doesn't come in flat to the receiver, where it could be contested by the slot defender. Instead, this ball drops late and is positioned just in front of the receiver, in stride. A difficult angle to compensate for, but that too is something Lewerke has posted numerous times on film.
Analysts and commentators will often comment on how tough it is to pass in the red zone, because spacing is tighter. Lewerke here offers great push on the football and showcases that arm strength, one of the components of arm talent, is present in his skill set as well.
Big play ability
There is also a certain level of athletic ability required to be a top prospect in the NFL. Fortunately, Brian Lewerke checks these box. First and foremost, he's a great athlete with the ball in his hands. Maybe not to the extent of Lamar Jackson but he can scoot. He isn't a powerful pocket presence like Josh Allen either, but he can extend plays all the same.
Lewerke can beat the blitz and flush the pocket with plenty of success thanks to his mobility. The Spartans used Lewerke in zone read concepts off the edge throughout the season, plus the team has even gone as far as to implement some speed option concepts into the mix. And those speed option looks can eventually build to plays like this one:
Sneaky Sparty! Lewerke caught the whole Cougar secondary napping on this one. That speed option motion serves as play action without any time needed to simulate a mesh point and allows for a clean read of the field.
Yet Lewerke's best showcases of mobility come when he is forced off his platform by the rush. Whether he ran to move the chains or he ran to extend time to throw, Lewerke has the goods.
A potent pass rush like the ones Lewerke will face against key opponents in Michigan and Ohio State can get frustrated by a passer who can leave his platform at the last moment. And if the Spartans are going to make a push for the Big Ten title and a CFB Playoff spot, they'll need Lewerke to do more of the above and more of what's below:
One of Lewerke's most frustrating components to defend is once he's exited the pocket. He stresses defenders in the flat with his mobility and as threat to run, but he's also deadly in creating unscripted spaces to try to slot a throw into, as he does above.
Any single one of these outlined traits is good to have as a potential pro passer. Having all three is when things get to be pretty exciting.
This is one of Lewerke's highlight plays. Was the throw risky? Absolutely, but Lewerke's shown throughout the games sampled that he understands coverage. So when the play-side Safety in Cover 2-man works all the way into the corner of the end zone, Lewerke knows there's no one left to challenge the throw if his receiver has won across the face of his defender in the back of the end zone. Bingo, six points.
This play may summarize Lewerke's strengths as good as any: mobility/athleticism, noted arm talent, a gauge of reasonable risk vs. reward decision making and making his receivers around him better with his own play.
That, my friends, is the stuff top QB prospects are made of.