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Michigan State hopes for 'clear picture' in QB race, which could extend in to season

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It’s been a few years, but Michigan State finds itself in the midst of a full-fledged quarterback battle.

And while offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jay Johnson hopes to have it settled by the time the Spartans open the season against Rutgers on either Oct. 23 or 24, he’s not going to force anything when it comes determining whether junior Rocky Lombardi, sophomore Theo Day or redshirt freshman Payton Thorne gets the nod.

Jay Johnson, Michigan State's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, hopes to have a clear picture of the quarterback race by the time the season begins.

In other words, this is a situation that could play out into the season as live game reps could help determine who, ultimately, wins the job.

“I guess I could see it going that way if there's not a clear picture presented to us and the staff and the team,” Johnson said. “I think there's always a chance of that, but also playing the position, that gets hard, too, when you get into that role at times. There’s positives and negatives to that. So, if we have to go that route, we could, but I'm hoping here in the next three weeks that through a bunch more practices that we have coming up that things can kind of present a pretty clear picture.

“That’s my goal, but I'm not afraid or you know, I'm not unwilling to do that. That's what we need to do. I'd prefer not to, but if we have to get there because it's not a clear picture, we will.”

This sort of quarterback race has been brewing since the second last season ended and Brian Lewerke’s career came to an end. New coaching staff of not — Mel Tucker took over for Mark Dantonio on Feb. 12 — there was going to be a significant hole to fill under center.

Lombardi, in his fourth year in the program, is the only one of the quarterbacks who has any significant playing experience. He played in eight games last season while starting three of eight games in 2018 after Lewerke suffered a shoulder injury. There were highlights — the win over Purdue two seasons ago stands out — but most of Lombardi’s time on the field has been less than spectacular.

Still, the experience counts for something, though the change in coaching staffs has brought all three quarterbacks to close to the same level.

“Anybody that has playing experience, obviously, it's just different,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to get that game-day type of experience, and (Lombardi) certainly has more. Theo played a few sparing snaps, but not much, and obviously, Payton was redshirted. So yeah, I definitely think there's a little bit of unique thing there because he has had some of that game-time stuff but everything is new that we're doing — new languages, new terms, new everything.

“Through the 18,000 Zoom meetings that we've had … I’ve really been impressed with all of them in their football foundation. Obviously, the guys did a nice job with them here in the past, and so I think they all have really a very solid foundation. We're just hoping to build on that.”

Just two days into practice in full pads, there doesn’t appear to be a front-runner.

Johnson said he’s splitting the reps as equally as he can among all three and has seen good things form each. Of course, he’s seen things that need improvement, as well.

“I've been moving all three of them together, tracking them every day,” Johnson said. “They’re very equal right now in total amount of reps in both basically seven-on-seven and team activity. At this point I've seen some good things, but then I've also seen some inconsistent things. And I guess the biggest decider for me is we've been out there kind of running around with just our helmets and we've just been out there two days in pads. So now, it starts to come to be a little bit more.

“So we’re still in that process, and I think I'll have a better take of where we're at probably in another week or two, just because it's more real when we have pads on. Everything is so much more real and only having two days, (there are) a lot of unanswered questions. But right now I've really wanted to look at all of them and look at all them somewhat equally since I'm since I'm the new guy on the block. They have been doing some positive things, but yet there's been some consistencies that we're working through.”

Once the starter has been decided, that doesn’t mean things are set in stone for the rest of the season.

Lombardi played in 16 games over the past two seasons because of injuries to Lewerke, and the same could happen this season for whoever is the backup. Add in the uncertainty of teams dealing with COVID-19, and depth will be critical.

That’s especially true at quarterback, and that’s why Johnson is doing his best to have all three ready to take first-team snaps.

“All of our guys have got be prepared,” Johnson said. “We talk about each and every day with the (quarterbacks). ‘Man, when the opportunity presents itself, are you going to be ready?’”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau