Michigan State QB Rocky Lombardi was the favorite to win starting job this fall. Now what?
This fall was finally going to be Rocky Lombardi’s chance to become Michigan State football’s starting quarterback.
Instead, he is right back where he ended last season: in limbo.
“I was obviously disappointed because I've been waiting for this job for a long time,” Lombardi told reporters on a video conference call Wednesday. “I feel like I've been a good enough player to play in the Big Ten for a couple years now, so it was kind of heartbreaking for me. But at the same time, I think it's good for our team, which is gonna obviously end up being good for me.”
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Lombardi is the only MSU QB with significant experience after the graduation of Brian Lewerke. The 6-foot-3, 217-pound fourth-year junior was expected to battle sophomore Theo Day and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne for the starting job this spring, only to watch practices get canceled in March four days before they were scheduled to begin due to the coronavirus.
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New MSU coach Mel Tucker said during the offseason it is impossible to judge position competition without seeing what players can do on the field. He had about five days of preseason camp to take a look at Lombardi and the other competitors work with receivers.
“Not a lot of time to evaluate players, but what I did see was very, very competitive,” Tucker said last week when asked about the quarterbacks.
Lombardi enters as the favorite based on his experience. He went 2-1 in his three 2018 starts, beating Purdue in his debut by going 26 of 46 for 318 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. But in Lombardi’s other 15 appearances, he completed just 38% of his passes (49 for 129) for 494 yards for one touchdown and five interceptions. Lombardi was 7 for 21 for 74 yards with two interceptions and no TD passes in 46 snaps over eight games in 2019.
“In my head, I'm always gonna view myself as the starter,” Lombardi said. “I know I've said this for three years ever since I started playing, but I'm always gonna practice and prepare like I'm going to be starter every week. So for me, it's just everyday going in there, and and how can I get better, how can I improve other things I didn't do well yesterday? So it's more about controlling what I can control and making sure that I'm on top of my game.”
Day got just six snaps last year as a redshirt freshman, completing 2-of-3 passes against Penn State for 12 yards before Dantonio yanked him mid-drive. He did not play again. And Thorne, who traveled to a few games, did not compete while sitting out his redshirt season but comes from a strong football coaching family.
MSU also has true freshman Noah Kim, but without having even had a college practice, he appears headed for a redshirt.
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“All have leadership capabilities and lead in their own way. Very talented players,” Tucker said. “All of those quarterbacks are different and bring different aspects and different talents and abilities to the table, so I'm looking forward to continue to see the open competition. And when we're able to get back out there when it's safe and when the time was right, we'll pick up where we left off.”
Part of the complexity of being a quarterback is so much of the job involves putting others in the right positions — a challenge when teams are split into smaller groups for COVID-19 protections. There is the need to work on timing with receivers, on communication with offensive linemen and on handoffs with running backs.
“I can't just go out there and throw in my living room,” Lombardi joked. “It doesn't work like that.”
Lombardi and the Spartans lost that opportunity to gel in the spring and only had limited chances to begin prep work this month. But he believes he has “done a better job of leading” during limited practices.
“The older I get, the easier it is to lead, the better you know the guys, the more you know their strengths and weaknesses and how to talk to them. So that definitely helps,” he said. “And I think that, even with the short amount of practice we did, I think we got a lot of good stuff in and a lot of good communication between the between the players to coaches, and players to players. It was a good couple of days.”
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Along with the arrival of Tucker, who promised a clean slate for all of MSU’s returning players, new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson is Lombardi's fourth new play-caller the past three seasons. While Lombardi said the previous coordinators under Mark Dantonio — Brad Salem last year and the tandem of Dave Warner and Jim Bollman before that — employed similar theories with different terminologies, he expressed excitement for the freedom that the offense has given QBs under Johnson. Lombardi believes being a coach’s son has allowed him to pick up another system quickly.
“For me personally, my goals are just to get smarter with the offense and defensive identification, especially,” he said. “Coach Johnson has really focused on defensive ID coverage, recognition, all that kind of stuff, which I feel like I've been good at. But I'm really trying to take that next step into perfecting that, being able to read safeties, leverages, footwork and eyes and all that. So that's kind of like my first step. And then beyond that, it's just to, you know, go out there and be calm in the pocket and just have fun.”
But how that will translate to being under pressure in games will have to wait. He and his teammates now will have the chance to watch fall Saturdays as spectators, assuming other leagues don’t follow the Big Ten’s lead in the coming weeks.
Lombardi plans to use that experience as part of his own progression as a player.
“It'll be weird …, but I'll definitely be watching it,” Lombardi said. “It's gonna suck that I'm not playing, but it'll be kind of nice that I'll finally be able to get to watch college football. You know, the worst part about playing college football is you don't get to watch anybody else, so it'll be fun to watch some of the other conferences, go at it and watch some of those guys and learn from them.
“But at the end of the day, it'll be kind of sad, but hopefully we're looking forward to the spring season.”
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