(Photo: Mike Carter – USA Today Sports)
As we inch closer to the start of the 2018 college football season on this final football-less Saturday, the preseason Heisman talk is in full swing. Unlike many years, there doesn’t appear to be a clear frontrunner entering the 2018 campaign, however, there are a few with better odds than the rest of the field. According to BetOnline.ag, three players are tied with the most favorable odds at 8/1 in Stanford’s Bryce Love, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (despite the fact that the young QB has attempted a grand total of 42 passes in his carrer – but that’s another column in itself).
Aside from Taylor, there are four more Big Ten players within the top 15, according to BetOnline.ag’s odds. Three of those four are signal callers in Shea Patterson (Michigan) at 16/1, Trace McSorely (Penn State) at 20/1, and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins at 25/1. The fourth is Ohio State running back JK Dobbins, also at 20/1. After a group of four guys at 25/1 odds comes a whole hoard of players from around the country tied for the sixth best mark (though with 15 players ahead of them) at 33/1, including Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke.
Many Michigan State fans, including myself, as they view the college football landscape through their green-tinted glasses, will probably tell you that Lewerke should be viewed as a “dark horse” candidate for the most prestigious award in the country entering the 2018 season. Anyone who has followed Michigan State football, even superficially, during the Mark Dantonio era can recognize that Lewerke is a dynamic player with a skillset not quite seen by any of Dantonio’s previous QB’s, three of which have made it to the NFL. But is it realistic, or even possible, for the Spartan signal caller to work his way into the conversation of the nation’s most elite? Let’s break it down.
Five of the last six Heisman Trophy winners have been quarterbacks, with the only exception being Alabama’s Derrick Henry in 2015. Collectively, those five players – Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Lamar Jackson, and Baker Mayfield – averaged 4077.4 yards passing on 65.66% completion with a TD/INT ratio of 36.2/7.6 to go along with 862.2 yards rushing on 5.5. YPC with 9.2 touchdowns, in each of their Heisman-winning seasons. Compare that to Lewerke’s 2017 season, in which he tallied 2793 yards on 59.0% completion for 20 touchdowns vs 7 interceptions in addition to 559 yards rushing for 4.5 YPC and 5 touchdowns. That comparison suggests that Lewerke needs to take a pretty large step forward in every department to be considered a Heisman contender.
If history is any reliable indicator, though, we would expect Lewerke to improve on his 2017 campaign. His numbers from his sophomore year as starter are roughly similar to those of prior MSU starters Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook. Should this trend continue, Lewerke’s numbers will likely improve marginally on his 2017 statistics. #14, however, has a more dynamic skillset than either of his aforementioned predecessors. Neither Cook nor Cousins rushed for more than 80 yards in any given season, while Lewerke had nearly seven times that number last season. Combine that with Lewerke’s excellent ability to throw while on the run, I, for one, expect Lewerke to take a greater step forward than either of the two prior MSU QB’s did from their sophomore to junior seasons as starter.
Will this improvement be enough to earn him a trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist with a shot to win college football’s most prestigious award? I’m doubtful, unfortunately, as much as I would like to see it happen. What I believe to be the ultimate limiting factor is Dave Warner/Mark Dantonio’s ball control-style offense. It was encouraging to see games in which Lewerke was allowed to let the ball fly and move the offense through the air, however, an MSU quarterback will almost never be given the opportunity to pad their stats enough to earn Heisman-level national recognition.
Could I be wrong? Absolutely – and I hope I am. If there was ever a year in which this kind of talk is even remotely realistic for an MSU quarterback, it’s this year. Lewerke is more dynamic than any quarterback Coach Dantonio has ever had, by a long shot, and plays with swagger that will likely give MSU a shot to win any and every game it plays. Combined with the fact that MSU returns three incredibly talented receivers, that all look like they have what it takes to play on Sundays, and a host of highly-recruited, but unproven reserves, Lewerke has the individual tools and supporting personnel to have the best stats of any MSU quarterback. I expect him to make runs at, and break, several MSU passing records and maybe – just maybe – he’ll force his way into the national conversation like no MSU quarterback has done before.