Rocky Lombardi hopes experience, leadership pay off in crowded Michigan State QB race
It would be hard to blame Rocky Lombardi if he was bitter.
Maybe even frustrated, or upset.
After three years at Michigan State, this fall was to be the redshirt junior’s shot at running the Spartans’ offense as the starting quarterback. Instead, COVID-19 shut down spring practice and ultimately led to the Big Ten postponing the season from the fall until, most likely, early in 2021.
Lombardi, however, didn’t take long to get past the initial shock of the announcement. Instead, he sees the delay as a good thing for himself and the Spartans.
“When it first got canceled, I was obviously disappointed, because I've been waiting for this job for a long time,” Lombardi said. “I feel like I've been a good enough player to play in the Big Ten for a couple years now, so it was kind of heartbreaking for me but at the same time, I think it's good for our team, which is going to obviously end up being good for me.”
How could not playing the season be good for both Lombardi and Michigan State? Well, it’s fairly simple. With the cancellation of spring practice and preseason camp halted after only a few days, practice time has been limited.
That’s hard enough for a new quarterback who’s started only three games over the previous two seasons. But add in the fact the offense is getting to know an entirely new staff, complete with a different scheme and different terminology, and time is critical.
Understanding what coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jay Johnson is expecting out of his starter is crucial, and Lombardi believes he’s in the best position to make the transition.
“I think it's a combination of (experience) and just kind of my background knowledge of being in a coach's household for so long,” said Lombardi, whose father, Bob, is a member of the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. “I just kind of get it naturally, but it's tough for some guys to pick up just because it's completely new but at the same time.
“I've really been in two systems with (former MSU offensive coordinators) Coach (Dave) Warner and Coach (Brad) Salem. Although it was very similar, there was different verbiage and it was different, so that definitely helped me pick up the system a lot quicker than most people probably would have.”
It could prove to be one of the most critical aspects of the quarterback battle that began the moment Brian Lewerke graduated and headed off to the NFL.
Lombardi is the logical next choice, having appeared in eight career games, getting his three starts in 2018 when Lewerke battled a shoulder injury. However, Lombardi’s numbers have been fairly pedestrian, completing 75 of 175 passes for 812 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions. He does possess the ability to run the ball as well, and brought plenty of energy to the team during his starts two years ago, but becoming the next starter is hardly a done deal.
Right in the mix will be third-year sophomore Theo Day and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne. Day saw a handful of snaps in 2019 while Thorne drew positive reviews running the scout team. Both will get their shot over the next few months, especially considering the reps were so limited before the season was derailed.
“Not a lot of time to evaluate players, but what I did see was very, very competitive,” coach Mel Tucker said of what he saw from the quarterbacks. “All have leadership capabilities and lead in their own way. Very talented players. All of those quarterbacks are different, and bring different aspects and different talents and abilities to the table, so I'm looking forward to continue to see the open competition and when we're able to get back out there when it's safe and when the time was right, we'll pick up where we left off.”
The leadership aspect is big for Lombardi. Entering his fourth year in the program, it’s something he’s able to control during a time when so much is out of his control.
Want to get some extra work in and get down timing with the receivers? You’ll have to figure out how to work around it when facilities are shut down. But stay connected with the team and bring everyone along? That’s something Lombardi has been focusing on.
“I think I've done a better job of leading, for sure,” he said. “The older I get, the easier it is to lead, the better you know the guys, the more you know their strengths and weaknesses and how to talk to them, so it definitely helps. I think that even with the short amount of practices we did, I think we got a lot of good stuff and a lot of good communication between the players-coaches and players-players. So, it was good.”
Aside from that, Lombardi will continue to wait patiently. He’s already been biding his time for three years, so what’s another few months?
When Michigan State does finally get back on the field and the focus can return to a quarterback battle, Lombardi will continue to approach things the way he always has.
“In my head I'm always going to view myself as the starter,” Lombardi said. “I've said this for three years, ever since I started playing. I’m always going to practice and prepare like I'm going to be the starter every week.
“So, for me, the quarterback job's not really on my mind. I can't control anything outside of myself. So, for me it's just everyday going in there and it’s, ‘How can I get better? How can I improve on the things that I didn't do well yesterday?’ It’s more about controlling what I can control and making sure that I'm on top of my game.”