Lombardi, MSU freshmen strive to restore program’s reputation

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan State freshman quarterback Rocky Lombardi talks with reporters on Tuesday.

East Lansing — For incoming freshman quarterback Rocky Lombardi, it’s an unusual situation.

The past three years at West Des Moines Valley High in Iowa, Lombardi starred and threw for over 5,000 yards as he compiled a 29-6 career record as a starter.

At Michigan State, Lombardi (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) moves from the driver’s seat to the back seat at a position ripe with competition including frontrunner Brian Lewerke, fifth-year senior Damion Terry and redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver.

“It’s different but obviously I expected that,” Lombardi said Tuesday. “These are the best of the best. There’s 85 Rocky Lombardis out there right now, so I got to compete with all of them and show them the respect that they’ll eventually show me one day.”

What Lombardi didn’t expect was to walk into a firestorm with a program coming off a disappointing 3-9 season and dealing with a tarnished image following multiple off-field incidents during the offseason, including two separate sexual assault cases.

It’s a drastic difference from a year ago when Michigan State’s 2016 class, dubbed the “Dream Team,” was entering the program with high expectations. At that time, the Spartans were coming off a Big Ten championship and an appearance in the College Football Playoff, and bigger things were expected to be on the horizon.

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But the dream quickly turned into a nightmare. The Spartans struggled mightily during the season before four players from the 2016 class were dismissed — receiver Donnie Corley, defensive end Josh King, safety Demetric Vance and defensive end Auston Robertson — and two more left the team — defensive back Kenney Lyke and offensive lineman Thiyo Lukusa — during the offseason.

With all those players having been expected to play impact roles in the fall, the rest of the Spartans are left to pick up the pieces.

“We’ve kind of established that for ourselves, that we’re here to do work,” Lombardi said of the 2017 class. “We’re going to be motivated, we’re going to work hard. We don’t have that sense of entitlement, I feel like and I think our whole group understands that because of what’s happened (in the offseason). I think that for sure we’re going to have a different mentality.”

And with the Spartans coming off a lackluster 2016 campaign, Lombardi said there’s a desire for the incoming freshmen to pay their dues and help bring back the family feel to the program.

“I feel like at the end of the day it comes down to character and I feel like our group is a great group of guys and we have extremely high character,” Lombardi said. “We’re going to push ourselves, whether we’re coming off of a national championship or we didn’t win a game. We’re going to come in and work our (butts) off.”

Similar types of messages were echoed throughout the Skandalaris Football Center on Tuesday. On one TV was a quote from Clemson coach Dabo Swinney — “When you don’t do what you are supposed to do, other people suffer” — and on another was a quote from Captain Abrashoff, the former commander of the USS Benfold — “I am absolutely convinced that with good leadership, freedom does not weaken discipline, it strengthens it.”

According to incoming freshman tight end Matt Dotson, the coaching staff has been sending a clear message when it comes to off-field conduct in wake of everything that has happened during the offseason.

“They’re definitely pressing it hard because it’s important for us,” Dotson said. “It’s what Michigan State football is. We have very high character and we can’t let a couple student-athletes who made the wrong choices affect us.

“We’re not like that. Michigan State is held to a lot of accountability and we got to make sure we keep carrying that all through the rest of careers.”

Moving forward, Lombardi, Dotson and the rest of the incoming freshmen will have an opportunity to make a difference and help carry the program back to brighter skies.

“We can only go up. We backed ourselves into a corner last year and all the stuff that went on, we have a shadow cast over our program right now,” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “We’re all just ready to push ourselves up.”