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The case for and against Payton Thorne to be Michigan State’s starting quarterback in 2020

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Assuming (hoping) we’re playing football games in 2020, Michigan State still covets a true starting quarterback. After taking a look at the prospect of both Rocky Lombardi and Theo Day as Michigan State’s starting signal-caller in 2020, we now move on to redshirt freshman Payton Thorne.

Based on a lot of comments I’ve seen both on here and on social media, Thorne appears to be the slight “fan favorite” to win the starting job in many circles, but that just seems premature, given he has played zero NCAA snaps. But he does possess a lot of intangibles that could certainly help him win the role.

The case for Payton Thorne to be MSU’s starting quarterback:

Thorne was the top-ranked quarterback in the state of Illinois for the 2019 class. As a senior at Naperville Central, Thorne completed about 65 percent of his passes for 3,113 yards and 40 touchdowns, while adding 451 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. In just two seasons with the Redhawks, Thorne holds the school record for most career completions (342), passing yards (5,367) and touchdowns (65). In his entire high school career, including time at Metea Valley, Thorne put up impressive numbers, including 7,008 passing yards and 83 touchdowns, in addition to 1,035 rushing yards and 14 more touchdowns. He received many accolades as a senior, including being named the 2018 Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year and the Naperville Sun Player of the Year.

While what Thorne was able to do on the gridiron at the high school level is impressive, it’s his mental understanding of the game and pedigree that particularly stands out. Thorne’s grandpa, John, coached high school ball for several years (and won multiple state championships) before becoming head coach of Division III North Central College (Naperville, Illinois). He is in the North Central College Athletics Hall of Fame after leading the the Cardinals to 118 victories, eight College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin championships and eight Division III Football Championship playoff appearances.

Now, Payton’s father, Jeff, is the head coach at North Central College. Since taking over for his dad in 2015, Jeff Thorne has won 52 of the 61 games he’s coached, including winning the 2019 Division III championship. Jeff also played quarterback for Eastern Illinois in the 1990s. With that kind of football lineage, the young Thorne has been around football all of his life. In fact, he started breaking down defenses as early as the age of 6. Although he is the youngest of the three MSU quarterbacks competing for the starting job, Thorne’s football IQ may be the highest of the group.

Another plus for Thorne is the fact that he has a built-in relationship with redshirt sophomore receiver Jayden Reed, who figures to be heavily involved in the passing game after transferring from Western Michigan last season and sitting out. The two are extremely close, as Reed and Thorne (and redshirt freshman walk-on Cade McDonald) were teammates at Naperville Central.

Thorne is a versatile athlete. In addition to his ability to run with the football, he was also a basketball and baseball player in high school. He could be the smart, exciting play-maker MSU needs at the helm — if he’s ready.

Here is what offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jay Johnson recently had to say on Thorne:

“I think Payton has a great skill set, seems to be very knowledgeable, seems to really understand the game,” said Johnson, who went back and watched video of Thorne all the way back to 2019 fall camp but has yet to see him throw in person. “I think (Payton) shows some decent skill-sets of movement capability, but then also appears to have a solid enough arm ability to make the throws that we need him to make.”

The case against Payton Thorne to be MSU’s starting quarterback:

Despite a prolific high school career, Thorne wasn’t heavily recruited. In fact, Michigan State actually had to flip his commitment from Western Michigan. He ranked as the No. 1096 recruit overall in the class of 2019, but was listed respectively as the No. 26 dual-threat quarterback. He didn’t have a lot of Power Five offers. North Carolina State was the only school that stood out in an offers list full of MAC, Mountain West or Conference-USA schools. No disrespect to those schools (Fire Up, Chips!), and honestly, I try not to get too hung up on recruiting stars and offers, but it was curious to me that his home state school of Illinois didn’t even extend an offer.

The next obvious thing to mention, of course, is that we have no data to go off at the college level. Thorne redshirted as a freshman last year, as expected, but despite having the option to appear in four games and reserve said redshirt, he didn’t play a single snap. He was named Scout Team Player of the Week for Indiana, but even with his high football IQ, athletic traits and gaudy high school numbers, you simply don’t know what you have in him if you’re Johnson or Mel Tucker. Spring ball could have been a great opportunity for Thorne to learn, step up and take the reins, but instead the coaching staff is yet to see him throw a ball in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He is also the smallest of the three quarterbacks. While he is only listed an inch shorter than Lombardi, Thorne has a bit of a thin frame at 6-foot-2 and 197 pounds. This isn’t necessarily a big issue in my opinon, and Thorne can still add weight prior to the season, but for comparison, Day weighs in at 222 pounds and Lombardi is listed as 217 pounds. Last season, Brian Lewerke played around 216 pounds.

There’s an old saying: “The backup quarterback is the most popular guy in town,” or in this case, maybe even the third-stringer. A lot of the appeal of Thorne for Spartans fans is the fact that we know he has a high football IQ, strong pedigree and plenty of athletic talent, but haven’t seen him take the field yet. The mere prospect of what he may be able to do is exciting to us because we haven’t seen him struggle yet. But we also haven’t seen him have any success yet, either. I am all for optimism, but I think we need to temper our expectations at the quarterback position, no matter who is starting.

OK, here is the moment of truth. Who will be Michigan State’s starting quarterback in 2020?


Who starts at quarterback for Michigan State in 2020?

This poll is closed

  • 35%
    Payton Thorne
    (166 votes)
  • 19%
    Rocky Lombardi
    (92 votes)
  • 38%
    Theo Day
    (178 votes)
  • 6%
    Other (grad transfer, Noah Kim or Eli McLean)
    (28 votes)
464 votes total Vote Now