What Mel Tucker is looking for in his next starting QB

The last moments of Rocky Lombardi’s career at Michigan State football shouldn’t be his exit from the Ohio State blowout, walking off Spartan Stadium dazed and confused after taking a head-crunching shot from behind. Or his inefficient performance before it.

Remember instead a subtle play near the end of the Penn State game last Saturday, with Lombardi on the sideline in street clothes and a green No. 12 jacket with the rest of his teammates. His replacement, Payton Thorne, connected with Jalen Nailor on an out pattern in front of the Spartans’ bench. As the receiver fell out of bounds, Lombardi moved forward, helped him up and gave Nailor both a push back onto the field and a pat on the helmet for a good route and catch.

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Rocky Lombardi, right, talks with Payton Thorne on the sideline during the fourth quarter against Ohio State on Dec. 5, 2020, at Spartan Stadium. Lombardi was injured in the second quarter.

Moments like that are why Lombardi was a member of Mark Dantonio’s leadership council and why new coach Mel Tucker started the redshirt junior at quarterback for the Spartans’ first six games. After an offseason unlike any in modern football history, Tucker needed stability and continuity to guide the roster he inherited. Lombardi led the Spartans to two wins over top-15 teams — over rival Michigan and Northwestern.

On Wednesday, Tucker signed his first quarterback, Texas high schooler Hamp Fay. A few hours later, he nabbed his second, Temple graduate transfer Anthony Russo.

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Friday afternoon, Lombardi entered the NCAA transfer portal. And MSU will head into 2021 with the same question Tucker needed to answer when he arrived in February.

Who will be your quarterback for the opener at Northwestern next season?

Thorne started the Spartans’ 39-24 loss to the Nittany Lions and produced the best passing day in school history for a freshman QB and a first-time starter, throwing for 325 yards on 22 of 39 passing. He opened the game with an interception but completed three straight drives with touchdown passes in the second quarter, showing the ability to mix short and intermediate completions with deep throws.

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But unlike when Brian Lewerke got his chance as a redshirt freshman in 2016 under Dantonio before getting hurt, Thorne will not go into the offseason with certainty that he will be the starter next season.

Payton Thorne passes against Indiana at Spartan Stadium on Nov. 14, 2020.

In four appearances, playing a half apiece against Indiana and OSU, Thorne showed flashes of good and bad. He proved he can escape pressure and throw on the run, but he also had three interceptions and a fumble – and one thing Tucker has been hammering home all season is “ball security is job security.” There also was not enough separation for Tucker and his offensive staff to feel comfortable giving Thorne the starting role over Lombardi.

After opening the season with back-to-back 300-plus yard games against Rutgers (319) and Michigan (323), Lombardi threw for 448 yards passing in his final four starts, completing just 36 of 82 attempts (43.9%) and throwing two pick-sixes. He finished with nine interceptions and eight touchdowns.

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Payton Thorne speaks on the phone as Theo Day (6) walks by during the second half of MSU’s 24-0 loss to Indiana, Nov. 14, 2020.

There was, however, clear division between those two and redshirt sophomore Theo Day and true freshman Noah Kim. Day dressed for every game, hovering away from offensive huddles during blowouts, while Kim’s only chance to dress was at Penn State. Neither got a game snap. Day took five snaps in 2019 before Dantonio pulled him, then was passed this fall by Thorne with the new staff. One or both could be seeking a new home by summer, if not sooner.

What about the newcomers?

Anthony Russo passes for Temple against Houston.

Russo – a 6-foot-4, 240-pound former three-star prospect from the 2016 class who also was being pursued by LSU – arrives having set records in five seasons at Temple for passing yards (6,287), completions (536), attempts (899) and touchdowns (44). However, he also was prone to turnovers – 32 interceptions in 31 career games – and the step up in competition from the American Athletic Conference to the Big Ten can be steep. And though he has seven rushing TDs, he is a traditional pro-style quarterback.

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Fay gives a glimpse into what Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson want the position to look like in the future. He’s a 6-6, 230-pound pro-style quarterback who threw for 1,450 yards and completing nearly 60% of his throws for 14 TDs in seven games this fall. Fay, who plans to enroll in January, has NFL size and arm strength, is not a runner but can move the pocket with his feet to extend plays similar to Connor Cook.

All Saints Episcopal (Texas) quarterback Hampton Fay.

Thorne, at 6-2 and 210, presents more of a Drew Brees size and ability. He displayed the ability to run in the read-option game and on rollouts and scrambles. It fits what we saw MSU’s offense doing this fall, but it doesn’t mean Johnson and Tucker are married to the game plan they used with the current personnel.

Still, Tucker achieved one of his biggest missions: infusing the quarterback room with players who will elevate the battle for the starting job. He made it clear his QB should be the fiercest competitor on his team, and no one ever questioned Lombardi’s fire or leadership.

But it also is painfully evident the Spartans can no longer afford to score 18 points a game like they did this season. Or 22.4 a game in 2019 and 18.7 the year before that. Football has become more offense-dominant the past decade, and MSU continues to struggle to put up points.

That ultimately became the problem Dantonio could not fix. Tucker knows it needs to change in a hurry. And it starts at quarterback.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football: What Mel Tucker is looking for in next QB

Published: 2020-12-20 11:03:02

Tags: #Mel #Tucker #starting

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