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The case for and against Rocky Lombardi to be Michigan State’s starting quarterback in 2020

Rutgers v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Michigan State Spartans do not currently have a clear starting quarterback for the 2020 season. Of course, the strong and scary possibility exists that we may not even have college football this year, as NCAA football games arguably have the biggest hurdles to clear regarding the COVID-19 pandemic of all of the major sports leagues.

Of course, another disadvantage for the MSU coaching staff and players is that spring ball was canceled (or possibly postponed to a later date). This issue is two-fold, as the players are yet to learn the new scheme and system on the field, and the coaches have not been able to evaluate talent on the roster in a live practice setting. OK, positive thoughts only regarding the football season being played from here on out. Assuming the campaign is played as expected, the Spartans need to find their starting signal-caller.

As the roster currently stands, there are three options for the No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart role: redshirt junior Rocky Lombardi, redshirt sophomore Theo Day and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne. Michigan State also has true freshman Noah Kim entering the fold, but he will almost certainly redshirt and isn’t a viable option as a starter. Walk-on Eli McLean is also on the roster, but is unlikely to win the starting job. Of course, MSU could always land a grad transfer, too, but that doesn’t seem likely at this point.

So, I am going to write a three-part series looking at the quarterback position and making a case both for and against each candidate to start, beginning with Lombardi, then Day, then Thorne. This is a piece I would generally pen in the summer, leading up to the beginning of fall camp, but with content at a premium, we’re getting a head start. Let’s do it.

The case for Rocky Lombardi to be MSU’s starting quarterback:

Rutgers v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Lombardi has the prototypical size you want in a quarterback at 6-foot-3, 217 pounds, and despite his solid frame, he has shown at least some ability to move around and scramble when a play breaks down. He is also easily the most experienced of the three quarterbacks mentioned, having played in 16 games with three starts so far in his career. All in all, Lombardi has played 355 offensive snaps. While, Lombardi, like everybody else, needs to learn new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson’s system from a physical standpoint (once face-to-face team activities finally resumes), he has the advantage of having already played with many of MSU’s returning offensive starters and contributors, which should make him feel comfortable.

Lombardi burst onto the scene in 2018, when he made his first career start at home against Purdue. Lombardi gave Spartans fans plenty of hope after that performance, where he threw for 318 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions, while adding 22 yards on the ground. Lombardi actually won two of his three starts in 2018, but after the Purdue game, he just never really put together a solid performance.

The potential is there for Lombardi, even if it hasn’t clicked yet. He had an illustrious career at Valley High School in Clive, Iowa, throwing for 5,818 yards and 66 touchdowns, while rushing for 979 yards and 17 more touchdowns. He was a two-time All-State selection in Iowa and had a career record of 30-6 as a starter. Lombardi is a well-rounded athlete, as he actually played multiple sports in high school, including baseball, track and field and excelling as a wrestler. He was ranked as the No. 13 dual-threat quarterback in the entire nation by the 247Sports Composite and also was ranked highly by both ESPN (No. 11 dual-threat quarterback) and Rivals (No. 23 pro-style quarterback).

Lombardi has the pedigree too, as his father, Tony, played for Arizona State in the 1980s and had a short stint with the Chicago Bears. Tony is currently the defensive backs coach for the University of Wisconsin–Stout, and formerly served as the defensive coordinator and interim head coach at Eastern Michigan.

The case against Rocky Lombardi to be MSU’s starting quarterback:

Michigan State v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Career stats:
Passing - 75 completions on 175 attempts for 812 yards, three touchdowns, five interceptions, 81.8 rating.
Rushing - 42 carries for 127 yards (three yard per carry average), zero touchdowns
(fun fact — he also has one career punt for 32 yards)

While Lombardi has the ideal size and some starting experience we’ve mentioned, he hasn’t shown the ability to lead an offense outside of the 2018 Purdue game. He has a career completion percentage of 42.9, he has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns and he averages just 4.6 yards per attempt. And while I mentioned he has some mobility, and he also doesn’t shy away from contact, he averages just three yards per carry in his career. Those kind of numbers simply won’t cut it against Big Ten competition. Unfortunately for Lombardi, he’s lost out on spring practice time and a spring game to improve in areas such as accuracy/ball placement and decision-making. One thing Lombardi may be able to do from home is master the new playbook — his ability to do so was something Lombardi was lauded for during the Mark Dantonio regime. But all of the quarterbacks on the team face that same obstacle of having to learn from a distance through video calls as of press time, and are missing valuable practice time. This seems to truly be an open competition.

Johnson (who will also coach quarterbacks) and head coach Mel Tucker have to go with the option that they believe will give Michigan State its best chance to win each game, and I’m not sure if that is Lombardi or not — it could be, but that remains a mystery right now. Day, and Thorne especially, are unknowns because we really haven’t seen what they can do on the field. For Lombardi, he has had ample opportunity to impress, and as mentioned, has really only done that for a complete game on one occasion. It seems the Purdue outing was much more of an outlier than anything else. All of that said, it doesn’t mean Lombardi can’t improve and take the reins of the offense. But given his track record, and the current situation in the world that will undoubtedly hinder his development, that may just be wishful thinking on the part of MSU fans. However, don’t rule him out just yet.

Johnson recently told the media that he is looking for a “CEO” at the quarterback position. Is that Lombardi — he certainly has the leadership qualities — or another player?

“Obviously, we don’t have a returning starter,” Johnson said. “I know Rocky’s had a few starts. The interesting piece which nobody knows this answer, even if we had spring ball, is what’s going to happen when the lights come on Saturday at Spartan Stadium. That’s the end result.”

Overall, it feels like Lombardi’s has the upper-hand on the job right now, given his experience, physical traits and ability to quickly learn a new playbook, but the competition is wide open. If he can put it all together and prove to the coaching staff that he can improve his accuracy, lower the turnover rate and continue in his leadership role, then expect No. 12 to win the job in fall camp. If not, expect one of the younger guys to step up and take the role.

We will look at Day and Thorne in more detail in the coming days.

Your turn to weigh in:


Will Rocky Lombardi be Michigan State’s starting quarterback in 2020?

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