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Michigan State Football 2021 Positional Preview: Quarterbacks

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Michigan State v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

As the 2021 college football season gets closer — fall camp begins in less than one month believe it or not — with Michigan State opening the year in Evanston, Illinois against Northwestern on Sept. 3, it is about time we take a look at each positional group on the Spartans’ roster. We will begin the series with the quarterbacks.

The Michigan State coaching staff members, and head coach Mel Tucker in particular, were coy throughout the spring about who is leading the race to the start the season opener, but should have an answer after fall camp gets rolling.

Here is what Tucker said about the position following the spring game:

“I thought they all showed some good things, and made some good throws, made some good decisions,” Tucker said. “I am sure we had a couple throws we would like to have back. But just overall, I thought they were efficient, that they ran the offense, and took what the defense gave us. You can see where I feel good about that position. I feel like we’re gonna have really good production from the quarterback position this season.”

And here is what Tucker said about the quarterback competition leading up to the spring game on April 13:

“It’s really too early to tell (who is leading the quarterback competition),” Tucker said. “We have some indications of where it is, but we got a long way to go. We’ve got the rest of the spring, we have an entire summer program, and then we’re going to have 25 practices in 29 days unless they change rules. And by the time that first scrimmage shakes out in fall camp, we’ll pretty much have good idea of where we need to be at that position and the other positions.”

Personnel-wise, the team lost Rocky Lombardi — who started six games last season — to the transfer portal (now with Northern Illinois). The Spartans also lost Theo Day, who appeared in just two games in three years with MSU, to the portal (Northern Iowa). In a less talked about move, former walk-on Eli McLean also decided to transfer out of the program.

Despite losing three players at the position, including last year’s starter in Lombardi, Michigan State has options for the 2021 season, and some may even say the Spartans are in a better spot at quarterback. Payton Throne returns as a redshirt sophomore after playing in four games in 2020, including starting the season finale against Penn State. Thorne looked poised and like he had a solid understanding of the offense during the spring game.

Michigan State also added Temple graduate transfer Anthony Russo via the portal. Russo has plenty of game experience, and once he masters MSU’s offense, could very well end up being the starter for the Spartans.

Redshirt freshman Noah Kim and true freshman Hampton Fay will also compete for the starting gig, but all indications are that the competition is a two-horse race between Thorne and Russo. Let’s take a closer look at each signal-caller.

Payton Thorne, redshirt sophomore

Michigan State v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Thorne looked to be confident, and had a good command of the offense, while taking first-team reps during April’s spring game. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder was also able to see his first real game action in his college career during the shortened 2020 season, playing in four games total, with one start (Iowa, Indiana, Ohio State and starting against Penn State).

Overall, Thorne completed 48 passes on 85 total attempts (56.5 percent) for 582 yards (145.5 yards per game) with three touchdown passes and three interceptions last season. He also displayed some mobility and athletic prowess. Although he only finished with a net of 47 rushing yards (college statistics subtracts yardage from sacks), he flashed with a 38-yard run against Indiana, and a 20-yard touchdown run against Ohio State. Thorne also set a Michigan State freshman single game record with 325 passing yards against Penn State.

Thorne showed some nice accuracy at times, completing 12 straight passes against Penn State during a stretch in the second and third quarters, while also completing his first 11 attempts of the game against Ohio State. Of course, for all the potential Thorne showed, he also struggled mightily at times, as would be expected from a freshman quarterback. He struggled a bit with hanging onto the ball, throwing an interception in each game against Indiana, Ohio State and Penn State. He also lost a fumble against Ohio State and fumbled against Indiana (but it was recovered by MSU).

There were times where Thorne looked clearly overmatched on the field, which would be expected from a young player being thrown into the game during bad situations. However going into his third year with the program, and second under Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, expect Thorne to be much more ready physically and mentally.

Thorne has a clear path to the starting role — beat out Anthony Russo. Whether he can do that or not remains to be seen. If so, Thorne has the opportunity to start for three more seasons (at least).


Anthony Russo, graduate student

Michigan State Spring Game Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Russo — 6-foot-4, 245 pounds — joined the Michigan State program in January after playing in 31 games at Temple, including 26 starts. During his time with the Owls from 2017 through 2020, Russo completed 536-of-899 (59.6 percent) for 6,292 yards, 44 touchdowns and 32 interceptions. He ranks third in Temple history for career yards, completions and touchdowns, and fourth in passing attempts. Russo also had seven career rushing touchdowns with the Owls.

Russo had good moments during MSU’s spring game, including a 41-yard touchdown strike to Jayden Reed. There were other times where Russo was notably short on throws and didn’t seem to have a full grasp of the offense quite yet — which makes sense for a player who had just transferred into East Lansing. One area where Russo needs to improve upon is with turnovers after throwing 32 interceptions with Temple.

While it wasn’t with the Spartans, Russo has the clear advantage over Thorne in the overall experience department. While Thorne seemed to have a better grasp of MSU’s playbook during the spring, Russo has played in 27 more games at the FBS level compared to Thorne. Russo has also started 25 more games and thrown 814 more passes. Once Russo has a full mental understanding of everything that Johnson’s offense includes and demands from the quarterback position, it is certainly a possibility that Russo’s in-game experience helps him show the coaching staff that he is ready to be the Spartans’ full-time starter.

Russo is a graduate transfer, which means he will likely only be in East Lansing for one season. He could theoretically return in 2022 due to the waiver granted to all fall athletes in 2020 because of COVID-19, however, it seems unlikely. With potentially one-last chance to impress NFL scouts, expect Russo to fight hard to win the starting job.


Noah Kim, redshirt freshman

Michigan State v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Kim was a three-star recruit and the No. 43-ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2020 class, according to 247Sports. He was previously committed to Virginia Tech before flipping to Michigan State. Kim redshirted as a true freshman last season, and did not see game action. He was named Scout Team Offensive Player of the Week leading up to the Northwestern game.

Kim had some nice moments in the spring game in April, and was third in the pecking order behind Thorne and Russo, but clearly ahead of the since departed Theo Day and true freshman Hamp Fay. Kim showed off his arm, and had a couple of very nice plays, including this throw to Ian Stewart in the below tweet (also a great play by Stewart).

Kim, listed at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, also showed off some strength recently. He bench pressed 225 pounds an impressive 17 times.

Kim is unlikely to see the field this season unless injuries to both Thorne and Russo happen (let’s hope that doesn’t happen), but if he can continue to build off of his strong spring game performance, and continue to develop his game under Tucker and Johnson, Kim could very well be the future of the program.


Hamp Fay, true freshman

Michigan State Spring Game Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Speaking of the future, Hamp Fay has a chance to make a big impact down the road. The true freshman signal-caller was a bit under-recruited after starting his high school career as a wide receiver and suffering an injury as a junior, however Tucker, Johnson and the MSU staff immediately identified Fay as a top quarterback target in the 2021 class. He was rated as the No, 40 pro-style quarterback, and No. 75 quarterback overall in the class, according to 247Sports.

In just seven games as a senior, Fay threw for 1,450 yards (207.1 yards per game) and 14 touchdowns, while completing 60 percent of his passes. He also led All Saints Episcopal to a Texas state semifinals appearance. As a junior, Fay threw for 845 yards and 10 touchdowns in just three games before an injury sidelined him. Fay recorded more than 3,000 all-purpose yards in his high school career (2,473 passing, 414 receiving and 293 rushing) in just 23 games. He also had five career rushing touchdowns.

Fay also has the coveted size at the position at 6-foot-5, and he will likely add weight to his current 215-pound frame. He had limited reps in the spring game, and it would be incredibly surprising if Fay did not take a redshirt in 2021, as most true freshman quarterbacks do. He can play in up to four games before burning the redshirt. In the future, though, Fay could very well be leading the Spartans.

Others on the roster:

  • Andrew Schorfhaar, redshirt freshman (redshirted in 2020), DeWitt High School
  • Zach Gillespie, redshirt freshman (redshirted in 2020), Lansing Catholic High School

The Spartans could add more walk-ons this summer. Next season, Michigan State will bring in highly-rated quarterback, and Elite 11 finalist, Katin Houser with the 2022 class.

Poll

Who will start at quarterback for Michigan State’s 2021 season opener against Northwestern?

This poll is closed

  • 58%
    Payton Thorne
    (268 votes)
  • 37%
    Anthony Russo
    (169 votes)
  • 2%
    Noah Kim
    (10 votes)
  • 1%
    Hamp Fay
    (9 votes)
456 votes total Vote Now