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Michigan State 2020 Positional Breakdown: Quarterbacks

Rutgers v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

It’s June, and the Michigan State Spartans recently announced a plan for getting student-athletes back on campus for voluntary workouts amidst the COID-19 pandemic. Athletic director Bill Beekman, while emphasizing the fact that he can’t see into the futures and things can easily change, expects to play the full schedule as it is currently laid out in the fall 2020.

So, while things can (and probably will) change, we are going to assume normal football will resume this fall, and proceed accordingly with our 2020 positional breakdown series, starting with what many believe to be the biggest question mark of the team: the quarterback position.

With Brian Lewerke graduated, and a new coaching staff that includes head coach Mel Tucker and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jay Johnson, the quarterback spot is an open competition. Johnson said he is looking for a “CEO” to be at the helm. Who is going to step up?

There are five quarterbacks expected to be on the fall roster: Rocky Lombardi, Theo Day, Payton Thorne, Noah Kim and Eli McLean. Kim, a true freshman, is likely to redshirt, while McLean is a walk-on player. The race for the starting spot is expected to be between Lombardi, Day and Thorne

In April, I wrote a short series making the case for and against each one to be the starter. While the starting spot remains a question mark, let’s continue that discussion by taking an individual look at each player:

Rocky Lombardi, redshirt junior

Ohio State v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Given what a strange offseason this has been, with players at home and away from team facilities, having to learn the new offense through Zoom calls, and spring ball getting canceled, Lombardi may actually have a leg up on the rest of the group. He is easily the most experienced of all of the players at the position, having played in 16 career games (if you count his punt against Arizona State in 2018), with three starts and 175 passes thrown. That is 172 more passing attempts than Day and 175 more than Thorne (or McLean/Kim). He’s also rushed the ball 42 times and shown his mobility to some degree.

In addition to experience, what Lombardi brings to the table is size and physicality, and a strong football pedigree (his father is a former college/NFL player and currently a college football coach). He has also been praised for his ability to understand complex playbooks and schemes — which he’ll need to do again this season with the new coaching staff.

However, consistency has escaped Lombardi. After his breakout starting debut against Purdue in 2018 (318 yards, two touchdown passes, zero interceptions and a win), he has not been able to repeat that kind of performance, and hasn’t completed more than 50 percent of his passes in a single game since (besides the 2019 Tulsa game in which he only threw and completed one pass for a mere three yards). In fact, since the aforementioned Purdue outing, Lombardi has completed just 48 out of 127 passes (less than 38 percent). In 51 snaps in 2019, Lombardi completed just seven passes on 21 attempts for 74 yards with zero touchdowns and two interceptions. His career completion percentage is 42.9.

Honestly, I haven’t the slightest clue if the coaching staff views the job as Lombardi’s to lose at this point — coaches have not been able to analyze on-field play just yet, but as I mentioned, Lombardi’s experience during these unprecedented times can only help his case since the others haven’t had the opportunity to develop. Lombardi’s play on tape, however, may say otherwise.

Theo Day, redshirt sophomore:

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Michigan State at Rutgers Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Day has a good opportunity to grab the starting spot. He is unproven, but has the size and physical traits you look for in a quarterback at 6-foot-5-inches tall and weighing in at 222 pounds. Day has a strong arm, and was a coveted recruit coming out of Divine Child High School (Dearborn, Michigan) with offers from the likes of Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Ole Miss, Minnesota and others. Johnson, has said Day also has “sneaky” athleticism and likes the way the ball come out of his hand. Spartans fans seem generally excited about the prospect of Day starting, with the majority of The Only Colors community members voting for him as their starting choice in a recent poll.

Still, though, Day has played just five snaps, and thrown three passes in his entire college career. When he did get into games, he did not impress, getting yanked in the Penn State game after calling in the wrong play. Day has talked about the challenges of transitioning from a high school signal-caller to a college signal caller — things like protections, reads, audibles, etc., but does think he’s improving in those areas.

“I feel like every year you play 12, 13 games, it’s a new type of experience,” Day said, via MLive. “You learn new things from watching different opponents play and then from watching guys like Brian (Lewerke) play or guys like Rocky (Lombardi) play. You just learn new things about what (defenses) are running, how we can attack it and all that.”

The fact of the matter is Day is an unknown. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as he has the tools to be successful, but areas he needs to improve is getting a better understanding of the playbook — which of course now he has to learn a whole new one again — and being comfortable reading a defense and making the necessary calls. Not having an opportunity to improve on the field during spring ball certainly isn’t helping matters. If Day is the opening game starter, I would expect some challenges and mistakes, with improvement throughout the year.

Payton Thorne, redshirt freshman:

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

Thorne has a rich football lineage — both his father and grandfather are highly successful college coaches at North Central College in Illinois. Thorne grew up around the game and has a great understanding of it. In addition to his mental fortitude, he has a solid arm, good athleticism and has some mobility. Another thing working in Thorne’s favor is his connection with high school teammate Jayden Reed, who is likely to be one of the starting wide receivers this season for MSU.

Despite being a decorated high school quarterback in Illinois, Thorne was not a highly-coveted recruit, and Michigan State actually flipped him from Western Michigan, but that does not necessarily mean he won’t be a successful college quarterback (side note: you must check out Paul Fanson’s recruiting data series if you haven’t yet). He has a thin frame at 6-foot-2, 197 pounds and needs to add weight/muscle.

Much like Day, Thorne is the ultimate wildcard. We have not seen him play on the field, so we don’t know what to expect. Also similar to Day, Spartans fans like Thorne’s potential — while Day won the majority of the 465 total votes in the aforementioned poll at 38 percent, Thorne was right behind him at 36 percent, and the two were separated by a mere 12 votes.

Again the absence of an offseason puts all of the quarterbacks, but especially a young one such as Thorne, even further behind the eight-ball. He has the pedigree, knowledge and skill set — but does he have what it takes to start in the NCAA as a redshirt freshman? We’ll see. If Thorne were to start, I would expect the same trajectory as I noted for Day, with a lot of growing pains along the way.

Others quarterbacks on the roster:

  • Noah Kim, true freshman: With four other quarterbacks on the roster, Kim is likely to redshirt as a true freshman. He’ll spend a year practicing and learning the new system, and then will look to compete for playing time later in his career. The three-star prospect out of Westfield High School in Virginia flipped his commitment from Virginia Tech and is ranked as the No. 43 pro-style quarterback in the 247Sports composite for the class of 2020.
  • Eli McLean, redshirt sophomore: McLean walked-on to the program in 2018 after a successful high school career at Notre Dame Prep (Clarkston, Michigan). After redshirting in 2018, he did not see any game action in 2019, and still has three years of eligibility remaining. McLean is more than likely the fourth-string quarterback and solely an extreme emergency option for the Spartans. He is also an Academic All-Big Ten honoree.

Michigan State did not bring in any transfer quarterbacks this offseason, so one of these players will be starting for the Spartans. Who that is remains one of the biggest mysteries for the football team.