The Michigan State Spartans open the season in less than two weeks, with a shortened, Big Ten Conference-only schedule. That is exciting for us Spartans fans, but perhaps the biggest question mark about this team throughout the offseason is what remains the biggest question mark as the start of the season inches closer and closer.
The Michigan State coaching staff is still yet to commit to a starting quarterback. The three (main) candidates are redshirt junior Rocky Lombardi, redshirt sophomore Theo Day and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne. Way back in April, I took a look at each quarterback and made the case both for and against starting that particular player. We are now well into October, and the coaches are still pretty tight-lipped about who is leading the race.
The first game is on Oct. 24 against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, but offensive coordinator Jay Johnson recently said, while not ideal, it’s possible the quarterback competition can bleed into the regular season. The hope is to have that figured out prior to then, though.
Johnson said last week that that quarterbacks are splitting reps evenly. He’s seen a lot of progress and positives from the quarterbacks, but is still seeing some inconsistent play, with nobody really taking over the reins of the offense.
“They’ve all been doing some positive things, but yet there’s been some inconsistencies that we’re working through,” Johnson said. “So, a lot to be determined yet there, but I do like the progress that we’re making.”
“If we have to go that route (of bringing the quarterback competition into the regular season), we could, but I’m hoping here in the next three weeks that through a bunch more practice that we have coming up that things can kind of present a pretty clear picture,” he said. “That’s my goal, but I’m not unwilling to do that if that’s what we need to do. I’d prefer not to, but if we have to get there because it’s not a clear picture, we will.”
During his media availability last week, head coach Mel Tucker seemed to share a similar sentiment regarding the evaluation of the quarterbacks:
“We’re still in that process of rotating our guys, equal amount of reps,” Tucker said of the quarterback competition during a videoconference. “They’re working with different groups and we’re still right in the middle of the evaluation process. I will say this, that all of our quarterbacks, they bring a different set of skills and different traits to the table and that’s very interesting to see. The competition is good. We have a good room in that quarterback room.”
At this point, I think it would surprising if we didn’t see Rocky Lombardi starting, at the very least, the season opener. He is the most experienced quarterback on the roster with 355 snaps played and 175 passing attempts. Given the complete lack of an offseason and a training camp period that had started, paused, and started back up again, I believe he has the upper-hand. Lombardi also feels confident and ready to take the next step in his college career.
However, the inconsistencies that Johnson mentions aren’t all that surprising. Lombardi’s struggles have been well documented, while Day and Thorne are inexperienced, and growing pains would be expected with those two.
Johnson did recognize Lombardi’s experience as a plus, but the new coaching staff also brings in new schemes, play calls, terminology and more. Perhaps this evens out the playing field a little bit more for all of the quarterbacks involved.
“Yeah, I definitely think there’s a little bit of innate things there because (Lombardi) has had some of that game-time stuff,” Johnson said, “but everything was new that we’re doing, new languages, new terms, new everything. So I’ve really, through the 18,000 Zoom meetings that we’ve had, I’ve really been impressed with all of them and their football foundation. Obviously the guys did a nice job with them here in the past. I think they all have really a very solid foundation. We’re just hoping to build on that.”
Tucker later went on to break down the quarterbacks a little bit further on his radio show last week.
Tucker praised the leadership, physicality and strong arm of Lombardi. He complimented Day’s size, arm talent and collectiveness. For Thorne, Tucker mentioned his mobility and maturity, and drew attention to that fact that Thorne is the son of a coach and understands the game well.
What was perhaps most interesting about Tucker’s comments, though, was his strong praise for true freshman signal-caller Noah Kim.
“We’ve got a strong competition there with Rocky, Theo, Payton Thorne,” Tucker said on Thursday, “and then Noah Kim, our true freshman, actually this week has shown some really good things. All four of those guys have some redeeming qualities and they’re all different, and that’s a good thing.”
“Noah is a young kid, but he’s got some moxie about him,” Tucker said. “He’s got a live arm. He 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.”
In Kim’s case, I wouldn’t expect to see too much of him this season. True freshman quarterbacks at Michigan State, at least under Mark Dantonio, were almost always sure bets to redshirt. However, with the NCAA’s decision to grant an extra year of eligibility to all fall athletes, I am not sure why MSU would need to burn Kim’s redshirt this season when the coaching staff can keep it in their back pocket for the futue. That situation remains fluid, and exactly how it impacts the future still remains to be seen, but maybe we will see some of Kim after all. With that said, I don’t think Kim is quite ready to beat out the aforementioned quarterbacks.
What do you think? The question is not necessarily who you want to start the opening game, but who you believe will start against Rutgers. Vote in the poll and comment below.
Who begins the year as starting quarterback against Rutgers on Oct. 24?
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