Resetting Michigan State football's QB battle with Rutgers game looming
The verdict of who will be Michigan State football’s next starting quarterback should be rendered soon.
Rocky Lombardi, Theo Day and Payton Thorne have a few more days to plead and present their case to new coach Mel Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson to why they should be the one to run the Spartans’ offense.
It's likely, with the season opener against Rutgers less than a week away, closing arguments already have been made. Quite possibly, a decision already has been made.
But after an odd offseason of pandemic problems and disrupted schedules, MSU coaches have the luxury of keeping position battles — including QB — under blackout conditions. It’s a one-game deal leading into Saturday’s contest (noon/BTN), where no one outside the program is privy to tweaks and changes — there is no tape from a spring game, no media B-roll from practices to hint at what’s to come.
And there is no telling who really is leading the competition.
By this time next week, a starter could be known, but not necessarily.
Could Tucker and Co. use this shortened season as a trial period and give each QB a chance to start? Could the Spartans use a rotation in games to build experience and as a tryout? Could they begin the year with one starter and move on to another if the competition remains close? Or has someone already seized the job and the staff is keeping things close-lipped?
Time will tell. For now, let’s reset the situation going into game week.
Year: Fourth-year junior.
Height/weight: 6-foot-4, 225 pounds.
Experience: 16 games, three starts since 2018.
The case for: Lombardi’s leadership never has been a question, as he was a member of the Eagles Leadership Council under former coach Mark Dantonio even as a backup last year. He is both a son and grandson of coaches and has a strong understanding of the game. A shortened offseason of prep time should help accentuate Lombardi’s advantage with live-game reps. Having the ability to scan an opponent’s defense and understand adjustments needed while working with an experienced center such as Matt Allen would help offset some of the lost practice and prep time. Lombardi is 2-1 as a starter, a few dropped passes in the end zone at Nebraska away from a perfect record. His 318-yard, two-TD starting debut against Purdue in 2018 is a sign that, given protection and production in the run game, he can move an offense through the air. And he also displayed the ability to create with his legs and throw on the run to keep the chains moving. In working with the No. 2 unit last season, Lombardi developed a rapport with the receivers who will be stepping into bigger roles this fall, and he also connected with returning RB Connor Heyward for 36- and 34-yard passes in a start at Nebraska in 2018.
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The case against: Outside of that Purdue game, Lombardi has struggled. In his other 15 appearances, he completed just 38% of his passes (49-for-129) for 494 yards, one touchdown and five interceptions. That includes going 34-for-84 for 319 yards in his other two starts. Lombardi has thrown an interception in four of his last five appearances and completed just three passes of 20-plus yards since throwing three in the Purdue game — one of them a career-long 48-yard flip pass on a jet sweep that Jalen Nailor ran for a TD. There is no question that injuries around him contributed to his dropoff, particularly on the offensive line, but his short-armed delivery did not help. Lombardi took 46 snaps over eight appearances in relief of Brian Lewerke in 2019 and went just 7-for-21 for 74 yards with two interceptions and no TD passes. Despite mobility and toughness, Lombardi has run 42 times for 127 yards (3.0 per carry) in his career. He also has struggled to protect the ball under pressure and experienced handling issues with shotgun snaps.
Tucker’s take (from his Oct. 8 radio show): “Rocky obviously is a big, strong, physical guy. He’s an excellent leader. He’s got a strong arm, and he’s a fierce competitor. And I believe that your quarterback has to be your No. 1 competitor on your team.”
Year: Third-year sophomore
Height/weight: 6-5, 225.
Experience: Two games, six snaps.
The case for: Day possesses the ideal pro-style QB frame, good pocket presence, a lively arm and a smooth delivery. Though he took just six snaps in two games last season, Day showed poise in converting a fourth down with a dart to WR Julian Barnett. His height gives him the ability to diagnose the defense, and though he was third on the rep chart, behind Lewerke and Lombardi, Day did get critical opportunities with deeper backup WRs to build a rapport.
The case against: His opportunities were limited to one handoff in his collegiate debut against Western Michigan and the decision of Dantonio to pull Day out of the game after that fourth-down conversion moved the Spartans to near midfield and reinsert Lewerke with the outcome already in hand. Lewerke said after the game that Day had called a wrong play, while Day a few months later recalled he had “just missed something on sideline.” Tucker is a stickler for detail-oriented preparation, and Day would have to show he won’t get panicked and can stay within the system.
Tucker’s take: “Theo Day is a guy who’s got really good size, height. He’s got very good arm talent, and he’s a smooth guy. He doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low. But his arm talent is evident.”
Year: Redshirt freshman
Height/weight: 6-2, 210.
The case for: Like Lombardi, Thorne comes from a long line of players and coaches. His father, Jeff, won the Division III national title last year as head coach at North Central College in Illinois as Thorne prepared for the Pinstripe Bowl with his MSU teammates. Of the three competing to be the Spartans’ starter, Thorne offers the most dynamic dual-threat ability and uses the run to set up the pass. A few program insiders last year raved about Thorne, one of them after a preseason scrimmage comparing his skills to a young Drew Brees. He also has a pre-established connection with two of his former high school receivers: sophomore transfer Jayden Reed and redshirt freshman walk-on Cade McDonald.
[ Michigan State football's Jayden Reed had a 'brother' waiting for him when he transferred ]
The case against: It is not exactly optimal or ideal to give a redshirt freshman his first start in a season opener against a conference opponent. Young, mobile QBs — such as Lewerke in 2016 as a redshirt freshman — have a tendency to abandon the pocket and give up potential passes downfield too quickly. Keeping that vision and making good decision with throws would be critical. Though he traveled to two road games last year, the newness factor is an issue when Week 2 is at Michigan and Week 3 is at Iowa this season. It's a lot to ask, almost an overload, without Thorne having taken even a snap in front of a spring game crowd.
Tucker’s take: “Payton Thorne is a guy that’s got great mobility, he has very good instincts. He’s also a coach’s kid, and so he understands the game. He’s very mature and shows leadership ability and has got command of the huddle.”
Height/weight: 6-2, 170
The case for: It’s worth mentioning Kim because Tucker mentioned him recently during his weekly radio show, saying the rookie “has shown some really good things.” He needs to build on that, because he most likely will get a chance to show that running the scout team like Thorne did last year, Day did the year before and Lombardi did in 2017.
The case against: Kim is inexperienced at this level, was not highly recruited and does not possess a Big Ten-ready body. A redshirt year running MSU’s scout team offense this fall is imperative for his development.
Tucker’s take: “Noah is a young kid, but he’s got some moxie about him. He’s got a live arm, he’s won a lot of games in high school. And when he gets his opportunities to go in there, he just seems to make plays. He takes really good notes in the meetings. When you ask him questions, he has the answers.”
Contact Chris Solari: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.