Where the Michigan State football QB race stands with opener 3 weeks away

Chris Solari
Detroit Free Press

Jay Johnson knows how good a backup quarterback can be.

At Northern Iowa from 1990-92, Johnson was a record-setting QB who earned all-league honors and won the Gateway Conference three times while guiding the Panthers to the Division I-AA playoffs.

The guy behind him who took over when he graduated? Kurt Warner.

“He's worth millions,” Johnson said with a laugh Friday during a video call, “and I'm a great trivia question.”

Michigan State offensive coordinator Jay Johnson goes through drills with the Spartans during practice in August.

As Warner started his Hall of Fame career in the NFL nearly 30 years ago, Johnson began building his resume running offenses as a coach. Johnson, Michigan State football’s new offensive coordinator, is looking to replace a record-setting starting quarterback.

The graduation of Brian Lewerke puts Rocky Lombardi, Theo Day and Payton Thorne under the microscope of Johnson and new head coach Mel Tucker. That competition got started under former coach Mark Dantonio during December practices for the Pinstripe Bowl, which Lewerke won played the entire victory over Wake Forest. The battle was then delayed by the coronavirus pandemic that eliminated the Spartans’ scheduled spring practices under Tucker and his new coaching staff.

Johnson said he has been divvying the reps in full team practices and seven-on-seven drills equally among the quarterbacks because of the shortened assessment period.

“So still in that process,” Johnson told reporters Friday before the Spartans’ walk-through workout. "I think I'll have a better take of where we're at probably in another week or two, just because it's more real when we have pads on, everything is so much more real.

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Michigan State offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, middle, oversees practice in August.

“And only having two days (in pads) — (there are) a lot of unanswered questions. But right now, I've really wanted to look at all of them and look at all them somewhat equally since I'm the new guy on the block. All them have been doing some positive things, but yet there's been some inconsistencies that we're working through. So a lot to be determined yet there. But I do like the progress that we're making.”

Whoever wins the job follows Lewerke, who plastered his name across MSU record books. 

Lewerke is the only QB in the program history with more than 8,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing, finishing with a school-record 9,548 yards of total offense. In three-plus seasons as a starter, he ranks third with 38 career starts and 22 wins.  Along with two bowl-game MVPs (the only Spartan to do that), he also ranks in the top five in school history in pass attempts, completed passes , passing yards, touchdowns and passing yards per game.

In other words, plenty of production must be replaced.

With Tucker saying on his radio show Thursday that he hopes to get two scrimmages in before the opener, that could give Johnson a chance to see Day and Thorne in a game setting.

Michigan State's Rocky Lombardi runs the offense against Ohio State during the second half Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018 at Spartan Stadium, in East Lansing.

Lombardi, Lewerke's backup, is the only one with extensive playing time. The 6-foot-3, 217-pound junior from Clive, Iowa, had a breakout starting debut against Purdue in 2018, going 26 of 46 for 318 yards, two TDs and no interceptions in a victory. He has struggled in his other 15 appearances, completing just 38% of his passes (49 for 129) for 494 yards, one touchdown and five interceptions.

Johnson and Tucker talked when they arrived about wiping the slate clean for all of the returning players, and Johnson said he likes Lombardi's leadership.

“To be quite frank, anybody that has playing experience, obviously it's just different,” the new play-caller and QB coach said. “It's hard to get that gameday type of experience. And he certainly has more… so I definitely think there's a little bit of innate things there.”

Junior safety Xavier Henderson said Thursday night the defense has seen all three of the QBs and he has been most impressed by Lombardi.

“He's getting that ball out quick, and it's coming hot, too,” Henderson said. “He's looking pretty good with his accuracy. So I'm looking forward to seeing how they take pressure, especially in the scrimmage situations coming up. I'm looking forward to how they deal with the pressure. But so far, they've been getting the ball out quick, I think and getting it out accurately. But we all know it's not the same situation when it's a live D-lineman coming at you.”

Michigan State quarterback Theo Day passes against Penn State during the second half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.

Day got just six snaps total in two games last year as a redshirt freshman, completing 2 of 3 passes against Penn State. However, Dantonio yanked the 6-5, 222-pound Dearborn Divine Child graduate mid-drive in the fourth quarter, and he did not play again.

Thorne did not play while sitting out his first season but did travel to and dress for some road games. The 6-2, 197-pound redshirt freshman from Naperville, Illinois, comes from a storied football lineage and has two high school teammates at wide receiver for MSU (sophomore Jayden Reed, a Western Michigan transfer and 2018 Freshman All-American and redshirt freshman Cade McDonald).

Michigan State redshirt freshman quarterback Payton Thorne goes through drills during an August practice.

MSU also has true freshman Noah Kim, who most likely will redshirt, along with walk-ons Eli McLean, Zach Gillespie and Andrew Schorfhaar. Johnson said he believes the previous staff left him plenty to work with.

“Everything was new that we're doing — new languages, new terms, new everything. And through the 18,000 Zoom meetings that we've had, I've really been impressed with all of them and their football foundation,” he said. “Obviously the guys did a nice job with them here in the past, so I think they all have really a very solid foundation. We're just hoping to build on that.”

In Dantonio's staff's final quarterback competition, coming off a College Football Playoff berth under three-year starter Connor Cook, veteran backup Tyler O’Connor got the nod to open the 2016 season. As the offense fizzled, Lewerke, a redshirt freshman, took over midway through the year. He got hurt, and the Spartans finished a dismal 3-9.

Lewerke was anointed the starter before the 2017 season, leading the Spartans to a 10-3 record. They've finished 7-6 the past two seasons. 

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Johnson said the competition is far from over and he is not afraid to make changes under center during the season if things are not going well. He also prefers to have someone seize the job before the opener at Spartan Stadium.

“I guess I could see it going that way if there's not a clear picture presented to us and the staff and the team,” Johnson said. “I think there's always a chance of that. … So if we have to go that route, we could. But I'm hoping here in the next three weeks that through a bunch more practices that we have coming up that things can kind of present a pretty clear picture. That's my goal."

Contact Chris Solari: Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

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