As we continue to make our way through each position group leading up to kickoff on Aug. 30, we are now on to arguably the most intriguing positional group on the Michigan State Spartans — quarterbacks. Let’s get right to it.
Brian Lewerke, senior
We are all familiar with the story here. After dealing with a shoulder injury for the majority of the 2018 season, Lewerke looks to bounce back with a much better senior campaign in 2019. The success of the Michigan State offense hinges on Lewerke’s play and health. The reports coming out of the offseason have generally been positive for Lewerke, as he is believed to be back to 100 percent healthy. Whether or not he has regained his confidence, which truly seemed to be damaged last season, remains to be seen, but I would expect a lot more swag in his game this season. He looked relatively sharp in the spring game, and although it was against second and third-team players with no real threat of a pass rush, the zip and velocity Lewerke put on the ball was promising. Frankly, 2018 was a disaster for Lewerke — a 54 percent completion percentage, just eight touchdowns against eleven touchdowns and an injured throwing shoulder — and he hopes to put it behind him.
Lewerke showed off his potential throughout the majority of the 2017 season (despite a few inconsistency issues), becoming the first Spartan ever to throw for 400 or more yards in consecutive games, and also making numerous plays with his legs. That year he orchestrated a dramatic turnaround for MSU, leading the Spartans to a 10-3 record, which came on the heels of a 3-9 season in 2016. Good things will happen for the signal-caller and his offense if he is able to tap into his pre-injury form.
2019 outlook: The starting quarterback job is his until he loses it, which barring injury, isn’t likely to happen. Lewerke is honestly a big question mark heading into the season, but If he is truly healthy and confident, I would expect much more of the 2017 version of Lewerke compared to the 2018 version. We will soon find out who Lewerke really is.
Rocky Lombardi, sophomore
An experienced backup quarterback is a great thing to have, and that’s what the Spartans have in Lombardi. He started three games and appeared in eight games total last season (including one at punter). Lombardi struggled for the most part, completing just 44 percent of his passes for 738 yards with three touchdowns and three picks, with an abysmal average of 4.8 yards per attempt. He also rushed 130 yards. However, Lombardi flashed his potential in his first ever start at Purdue, throwing for a career high 318 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also won two of the three games he started. With the experience he gained last season, and another year to train, Spartan fans should feel pretty good about Lombardi as the backup QB behind Lewerke.
Brad Salem and Dave Warner swapped roles between offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and perhaps working with these coaches in their new roles will help Lombardi and the other quarterbacks elevate their games. That part remains to be seen, but the Spartans have nowhere to go but up offensively. Lombardi, who has prototypical size at 6-foot-3, 217 pounds, is the future of the Michigan State Spartans. All signs point toward him being the starter in 2020 and 2021 — but success will only come if he continues to grow and develop his skillset.
2019 outlook: If all goes to plan, Lombardi only sees game action when MSU is up (or down) by 25 points in the fourth quarter. But if Lewerke gets injured again (knock on wood), or struggles mightily, Lombardi will be forced into the lineup. If Lewerke sustains an injury, I think the coaching staff handles the situation with a lot more caution this time around and won’t hesitate to go with Lombardi until Lewerke is 100 percent healthy.
Theo Day, redshirt freshman
If Lewerke is the present and Lombardi is the near future, Day is the distant future. Day redshirted last season as a true freshman, which still gives him four years of eligibility remaining. He will get a chance to compete with Lombardi next season for the starting job, but that role is Lombardi’s to lose, so I would expect Day to back up Lombardi in 2020 and 2021 (barring injury) and then finally get his chance as a senior in 2022. With that said, the most successful quarterbacks in the Dantonio era have been those who were multi-year starters, so it’s hard to predict his exact trajectory. Day didn’t look great in the spring game, completing just four passes on 12 attempts for 28 yards.
Day was a high three-star recruit out of Divine Child in 2018. He was considered the No. 17 pro-style quarterback in the entire class, and No. 7 player in Michigan, regardless of position (247Sports Composite). He was also rated as the No. 1 quarterback in Michigan that year. The talent and potential seem to be there for Day, so it will be interesting to watch how he progresses. At 6-foot-5, 222 pounds, Day is even more physically imposing than Lombardi. He has the look and the tools to be successful, but he has a long way to go.
2019 outlook: If Day is playing for any considerable amount of time this season it means things went south for the Spartans. His primary job this season will be to wear a headset and hold a clipboard on the sideline as he watches and learns from Lewerke and possibly Lombardi. His time will come later.
Other quarterbacks on the roster:
- Payton Thorne, true freshman: Thorne is a three-star recruit from Illinois who was originally committed to Western Michigan before flipping to MSU. He was ranked as the No. 26 dual-threat QB in the 2019 class. A redshirt is almost guaranteed for Thorne as a true freshman, with the three aforementioned quarterbacks all ahead of him on the depth chart. Perhaps he will be a future starter in East Lansing, but there will be several years of standing on the sideline prior to that chance.
- Eli McLean, redshirt freshman: McLean made the team as a walk-on in 2018 after a standout high school career at Notre Dame Prep. He took a redshirt last season and has four years of eligibility remaining. McLean is unlikely to unseat any of the quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart, but he provides a last resort as the fifth option if things really unravel for the Spartans.
The quarterback position provides many questions: Is Lewerke truly healthy? Will he return to 2017 form? Will Lombardi be able to step up if his number is called? We will get our first glimpse into this dilemma two weeks from today!
Personally, I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about Lewerke in 2019. What do you think?