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Rocky Lombardi dives in with both feet as Michigan State's fill-in punter

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Rocky Lombardi's responsibilities have grown from backing up starting quarterback Brian Lewerke to also handling punting duties.

East Lansing — When Rocky Lombardi thought about making his college football debut, it was almost certainly throwing the ball.

But the redshirt freshman had made it clear — he wanted to get on the field however he could for Michigan State. So, when punter Jake Hartbarger injured his kicking leg nearly two weeks ago at Arizona State, the Spartans turned to Lombardi.

The backup quarterback responded with a respectable 32-yard punt with a return that lost 2 yards.

“It was acceptable considering the circumstances,” Lombardi said.

The circumstances were far from what anyone was expecting. After all, it’s not every day a punter leaves a game because of injury. But, when Hartbarger was hurt after the play had been blown dead because of a penalty in the fourth quarter, Lombardi and the Spartans were scrambling.

First, he had to find his helmet. Then came a few swings of the leg and just like that, he’d taken his first college snap.

“I wouldn't have expected this to be my debut,” Lombardi said, “but any opportunity they give me I'm going to take advantage and try to do the best I can and prove that I can be out there.”

It’s something that has been on Lombardi’s mind going back to last season when he was redshirting. Instead of simply running the scout-team offense, the left-footed Lombardi offered up his services when the Spartans were preparing to face a team that had a left-footed punter.

At first, he mentioned it in passing to the coaching staff. But it took some pushing from Lombardi before he finally got a shot in practice.

“Eventually they let me kick the ball and it's just kind of taken off from there,” Lombardi said.

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It’s taken off to the point where the No. 24 Spartans now have turned to Lombardi with Hartbarger out for up to eight weeks. Instead of using true freshman William Przystup this Saturday at Indiana in the Big Ten opener, they’ve decided to allow Lombardi to work in some punting while also preparing each week as quarterback Brian Lewerke’s primary backup.

It creates a bit of a change in day-to-day practices, but Lombardi said it hasn’t been a drastic adjustment.

“He's doing that at that time and then we have different periods throughout the practice that are devoted to punting or a special-teams emphasis part of practice, as well, where there's a four- or five-minute period in there,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “He's getting an opportunity to do that and obviously there's after practice, as well.”

The practice of punting is not completely new to Lombardi. As a senior at Valley High in Des Moines, Iowa, Lombardi was the team’s punter. They didn’t punt a lot, Lombardi said, but he recalls kicking the ball as far as 50 yards.

How he’ll approach things now — a traditional-style kick or a rugby-style punt — remains to be seen.

“I really can do either,” Lombardi said. “I’ve been working a little rugby because I hadn’t done it before, really. Now I’m a little more balanced. But, whatever they want I can do.”

An added challenge this week is kicking to Indiana’s J’Shun Harris II. The fifth-year senior was the Big Ten’s special teams player of the week last week and has returned three punts for touchdowns in his career, including an 86-yarder against Ball State.

Harris is coming back from a third ACL injury suffered last season, one in which he still earned honorable mention All-Big Ten accolades despite missing a quarter of the season.

“He's done an outstanding job,” Dantonio said of Harris. “Had a touchdown last week and another one called back.

“He's a guy that you have to defend and you have to work special things throughout practice to really get ready for him, and he should be commended just for coming back from I think his third ACL injury. So, he's a testament to hard work and dedication, there's no question about that.”

Twitter @mattcharboneau