Michigan State's Rocky Lombardi practices patience in return to backup quarterback role
East Lansing – Rocky Lombardi was riding high after his first career start.
It came last season as Michigan State hosted Purdue and starting quarterback Brian Lewerke was in the midst of battling a shoulder injury that would bother him for the second half of the season.
Lombardi got the call that day as Michigan State was trying to bounce back from the previous week’s loss to Michigan. They were tough times. With two conference losses, the Spartans were digging a big hole in the Big Ten and they had just lost wide receiver Felton Davis to a torn Achilles.
So it wasn’t exactly the ideal spot for a redshirt freshman to get his first crack running the offense.
Lombardi responded, though, completing 26 of 46 passes for 318 yards and two touchdowns as Michigan State earned the 23-13 victory.
As Lombardi entered the locker room, the team erupted, chanting “Rocky, Rocky!”
A sign of things to come, perhaps? The beginning of the Lombardi era?
Not quite. Lewerke started the next two games against Maryland and Ohio State, trying to play through the bad shoulder. He didn’t finish either game, but Lombardi didn’t fare much better, throwing an interception on just two attempts in the win over the Terrapins and going 7-for-20 in the loss to Ohio State.
Lombardi started the final two games, going 15-for-41 for 146 yards in a 9-6 loss at Nebraska before a 19-for-43 outing in a lackluster win over Rutgers.
“Rocky obviously showed what he could do last year in the Purdue game,” said Michigan State quarterbacks coach Dave Warner, who was the offensive coordinator last season. “He played well and led us to a win but, and he’ll be first to admit this, had some inconsistent days, whether it be games or practices after that.
“So, we need for him to level out and be a consistent guy, and I think he’s on his way to doing that.”
That consistency is key for any quarterback, but it’s especially hard to achieve when you’re the backup. And to be sure, Lombardi is the backup once again entering the 2019 season.
Lewerke’s shoulder is 100 percent and there’s been no indication from Warner or head coach Mark Dantonio that the pecking order has changed. In fact, most believe Lewerke has a shot at returning to the forum that saw him gain 3,352 total offensive yards, the second-most in program history.
Still, there’s always a chance things could change as the season progresses, and that means not counting out redshirt freshman Theo Day or freshman Payton Thorne.
“Every position there is competition right now,” Warner said. “Brian has a ton of experience under his belt, and the injury was what forced him out last year. He's shown what he is capable of and obviously last year, mostly because of the injury, was not a good indication of what he can do.
“I think all of our quarterbacks need to continue to improve and continue to fight for playing … basically what it comes down to is the best guy is going to play. We will see who that is at the end of camp, but right now they are taking pretty much equal reps and our freshman, Payton Thorne, is getting a lot of reps, which is unusual.”
None of it is easy for Lombardi, who believes he took steps in the right direction but also understands he has a long way to go.
“Being patient is not easy,” Lombardi admitted.
Patience is necessary, but in the world of a backup quarterback, your spot on the depth chart can change in an instant.
“(I have) the mindset that I've always had,” Lombardi said. “I prepare like I'm the starter every week. You need to put in the work like you'll play that week. Sometimes things happen, and people have to step up and make plays, so I'm always ready to do that.”
In eight games last season, Lombardi was 68-for-154 (.44.2 percent completion percentage) for 738 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. He also showed he could make plays with his feet, gaining 130 yards with a long of 47.
He’s put in plenty of work this offseason to improve on those numbers, working with various quarterback coaches and joining Lewerke last month at Commanders Camp near San Diego, when a group of quarterbacks from around the nation worked with Marines and Navy SEALs on developing leadership skills.
“It was a really cool experience and I learned a lot from those guys,” Lombardi said. “They’re obviously some of the best leaders in the whole world and some of the strongest units. I definitely took some things away from that and I’m going to share with our team.”
The skills learned at that camp should go a long way in Lombardi tackling his role as Lewerke’s backup. It’s a role that might change. Maybe not until next season. Maybe sometime over the next few months.
However it plays out, Lombardi is doing what he can to be ready.
“I'm just doing my best every day and putting my best foot forward to create opportunities for myself,” Lombardi said. “Every day is a grind, and I treat every day as if it's my last. Obviously, I'm competing every day, so any day that I can get better and improve my confidence is a good day.”