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'I've never felt better': MSU QB Rocky Lombardi ready to take next step

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

In his first three seasons on campus, Rocky Lombardi has had one true shining moment.

That came back in 2018 when the redshirt freshman quarterback earned his first career start, stepping in for the injured Brian Lewerke. Lombardi was far from perfect, but he brought a spark to an offense that has had little over the last two seasons, leading the Spartans to a 23-13 victory over Purdue.

Lombardi completed 26 of 46 passes for 318 yards and two touchdowns while being named the Big Ten co-freshman of the week. After the game, Lombardi was greeted in the Michigan State locker room by chants of “Rocky! Rocky!” from his teammates.

Rocky Lombardi

It was clear at that moment, Lombardi was a player others would follow.

Even with limited playing time the past two seasons — Lombardi didn’t start a game last season and threw only 21 passes — and uncertainty at the quarterback position, that feeling hasn’t changed for at least one important player on the roster.

“I've always been a Rocky Lombardi fan, ever since we stepped foot on campus,” senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. “I've always rooted for Rocky. He’s always been a guy that people listen to when he spoke. He’s always been the guy that's done everything right. He showed up to lifts on time, he worked his butt off. Just the fact that he was playing behind Brian — Brian was a good quarterback for us. He was lights out — I don't know if there’s too much Rocky could do in that situation, especially with Brian being a starter before and coming back.

“It would have been hard for Rocky to work his way into that role, but I think Rocky showed great leadership qualities, being that backup and holding Brian accountable, holding his receivers accountable and holding everybody accountable.”

As Lombardi finally begins to prepare for his redshirt junior season, there is no longer an established starter in his way. And while there can be legitimate debate about whether he’s played well enough the past two seasons to be considered the front-runner to start this season — Lombardi has completed only 43% of his passes and has five interceptions to three touchdowns — it doesn’t seem any of it has affected his approach.

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After Michigan State’s practice Monday — its first full workout since the Big Ten announced it was, indeed, going to play this fall — Lombardi flashed that familiar confidence. It’s the same confidence that draws in players like Simmons, who came to Michigan State with Lombardi as part of the 2017 recruiting class.

It’s clear, in Lombardi’s mind, he’s the starting quarterback. And while he’ll support the other guys in the room — sophomore Theo Day, redshirt freshman Payton Thorne and freshman Noah Kim — Lombardi is focused on his job and not the questions that will likely come regularly over the next few weeks about a quarterback competition.

“I've always felt like I've been the quarterback here,” Lombardi said. “I've always felt like I've been good enough to play at this level and I still feel like that, obviously. So when I hear that stuff (about a quarterback battle) that doesn't really affect me at all. There's nothing I can do about that so I just can't think about it. It’s kind of on the back burner, so to speak, and it's not something that I really think about.”

He wasn’t thinking about it in the off-season and he wasn’t thinking about it when things were shut down in the spring. Instead, Lombardi dove into the playbook from offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jay Johnson.

That continued when preseason camp was halted after just five days. Instead of lose the time, Lombardi immersed himself in the offense while studying his own film and throwing as much as he could.

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“I feel like I've gotten a lot more comfortable with who I am as a player and learning to use my strengths to my advantage,” Lombardi said. “And aside from that, I got a lot of good throwing work in. I feel like this is the best I’ve ever thrown the football. I feel comfortable in the pocket; my feet are quiet. I feel really good right now, so it's been a long time to finally get on the field, but I've never felt better.”

Lombardi sounds like a leader. He sounds like the starting quarterback.

Sure, the numbers and the play on the field will have to follow for Lombardi to put a stranglehold on the spot, but he also believes he’s in perfect position to take over. Lombardi watched Lewerke operate for three seasons, got a taste of the action as a redshirt freshman and believes there’s only one thing left — go out and prove he’s worthy.

“I've been preparing for this for a long time,” Lombardi said. “I even got some playing time in the last couple years but it's finally starting to come together. I feel like I got a chance to go out there and play and I feel like I got a chance to prove myself.

“You asked me what I think about when I’m out there playing and for me now it's more about doing. I've gotten to the point where I don't really have to think as much out there. I can go through and I’ve got a couple things in my head and then, boom, I'm just playing. You just got to go out there and ball it's really not about overthinking things or anything like that.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau