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Mel Tucker: 'Nothing set in stone' at QB heading into Maryland matchup

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Michigan State still isn’t sure if it’s playing a football game on Saturday, and if the Spartans do take the field against Maryland, figuring out who will start at quarterback remains an ongoing discussion.

A rash of COVID-19 cases forced Maryland to cancel its game last week with Ohio State, and this week’s noon kickoff in College Park is still up in the air as the Terrapins did not practice on Monday. Mel Tucker and the Spartans, though, are still moving forward as if there will be a game.

“From all indications and everything I've been told, they're trying to play,” Tucker said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “So, we're preparing to play. I know that they want to play and I talked to (Maryland coach Mike Locksley) this morning for a long time. We had a good talk and I know they want to play, and so we're preparing to play.”

Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi has thrown five interceptions over the past two games.

Of course, the numbers will dictate whether the teams will play. If they come under the threshold established by the Big Ten, then there will be a game.

More: Michigan State, Maryland preparing to play 'until we're told differently'

In that case, the Spartans will need to settle the quarterback situation. Junior Rocky Lombardi has struggled the past two games and was pulled in the second quarter of Saturday’s loss to Indiana in favor of redshirt freshman Payton Thorne.

Tucker said the week of practice would help determine which player gets the start.

“It was a mixed bag with both quarterbacks,” Tucker said. “So we're going to go through the week, and it’s really early in the week. We haven't even put the pads on yet. We’ll do that later on today and we’ll see how it goes. There’s nothing set in stone on this team. Every position is an evaluation every day.”

Lombardi, who spent the last two seasons as the primary backup to Brian Lewerke, played well in the first two games. He threw for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns each week, though he did throw three interceptions in the opening loss to Rutgers. The problems with turnovers surfaced again at Iowa with two more interceptions, and culminated last week with two more in the loss to Indiana.

That led to Thorne entering the game in the second quarter. He made some plays with his legs — he gained 38 yards on his first play — and finished 10-for-20 passing for 110 yards. But Thorne threw an interception as well, and missed on a couple of other throws, leading to uncertainty this week.

“I watch every bit of practice tape. I watch the walk-ons, we watch everyone, we’re evaluating everyone,” Tucker said. “We’re going to go with who we think gives us the best chance to win, but we'll see how the week goes. That’s how we're approaching it and Rocky and Payton, they've been communicated with so there's no gray. We know how we’re going to go about this week.”

While Tucker and his staff haven’t settled on a starter for this week, it does appear it’s a two-man race. Sophomore Theo Day and freshman Noah Kim are also in the mix, and while Tucker didn’t dismiss either, he wasn’t exactly including them with Lombardi and Thorne, either.

“It’s a possibility, because those guys take reps in practice, too,” Tucker said.

Lombardi has started all four games this season and now has seven starts in his career, giving him an edge in experience. Thorne first appeared in a game two weeks ago at Iowa before getting extensive work in the loss to Indiana.

And while Thorne doesn’t have the game experience, he does have a rapport with wide receivers and former high school teammates Jayden Reed and Cade McDonald.

“That was pretty natural, honestly,” Reed said of the connection he and Thorne had last week. “I've been playing with him for so long I'm just used to it. When he's out there it’s really nothing new to me, so it was really good getting out there. Obviously, I haven’t been out there with him in a few years so it was good to get out there with him.”

However, that doesn’t mean Reed is second-guessing the offense’s ability with Lombardi at the helm.

“I think they're both good leaders, honestly,” Reed said. “Obviously, they have shown that they're both capable of getting the job done. I have trust and belief in both of them. So, I believe in whoever's out there with me. That's how I look at it.”

Extra points

Tucker confirmed that junior offensive lineman Mustafa Khaleefah, who has yet to dress for a game this season, has opted out for the season because of COVID-19 concerns. A team spokesman also confirmed that freshman defensive linemen Simeon Barrow and Jasiyah Robinson have also opted out.

Barrow dressed for the first two games of the season but did not play, while Robinson has not dressed for a game yet.

“We’re supporting them,” Tucker said. “This goes back to what we talked about months ago. Everybody's got to make a decision and we're supporting our players on the decisions they make relative to COVID.”

Michigan State has had seven players opt out, though two game back — defensive end Jacub Panasiuk and linebacker Marcel Lewis. Lewis, though, entered the transfer portal on Monday. Two other players, offensive linemen Jordan Reid and Justin Stevens, opted out before the season and have not returned.

… Tucker said redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jalen Hunt, who was injured in the second half on Saturday and left the sidelines, was back at practice on Monday.

Michigan State at Maryland

Kickoff: Saturday, noon, Maryland Stadium, College Park, Maryland

TV/radio: BTN/760

Records: MSU 1-3, Maryland 2-1

Line: Maryland by 6

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau