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MSU mailbag: Will Anthony Russo be No. 1? Will Rocky Lombardi change positions?

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Things are happening with Michigan State football.

While the Spartans are getting ready to take on Maryland on Saturday, Mel Tucker and his staff were busy signing 16 players to the 2021 recruiting class on Wednesday and also secured graduate transfer quarterback Anthony Russo from Temple.

That move, alone, stirred plenty of interest in this week’s mailbag as fans have been encouraged by the play of redshirt freshman Payton Thorne. Russo’s arrival creates a crowded quarterback room, leading to speculation of position changes and transfers.

We tackle that this week while trying to guess how much Michigan State will be active in the portal this offseason, how many seniors might stick around and the obsession with star rankings vs. on-field production. We also throw in a basketball question for good measure.

Anthony Russo

Question. Did the QB from Temple not see the game on Saturday where Thorne set records for a starting freshmen? -- @BKulzick

Answer. We’re talking about Anthony Russo, the graduate transfer from Temple who announced Wednesday he was heading to Michigan State. It’s a fair question, but my guess is he’s been told by the coaching staff it’s an open competition and one that he probably has a good shot at winning, otherwise, why come to MSU? That said, Payton Thorne is the wildcard. The staff might not be planning on him to be the starter, but if he keeps playing like he did against Penn State, that choice might be taken out of their hands. Ask Kirk Cousins how it’s done after he gave the coaches no choice, sending Nick Foles out of town and Keith Nichol to receiver. Or Connor Cook, when the plan was to play Andrew Maxwell and transition to Damion Terry. So, yeah, there might be a plan today, but that can change significantly.

Q. Has there been any talk of Rocky Lombardi becoming a TE? He seems like he has the size and athleticism to excel in that role? -- @tj_cumings

Q. Do you see a possible position switch or transfer for Rocky? Theo Day? -- @JimHarden17

A. We put these two together because they ask essentially the same question. With the arrival of Russo, the way Thorne has been playing and incoming freshman Hamp Fay ready to enroll next month, there’s plenty of reason to wonder about Lombardi and Day. Lombardi could absolutely be a candidate for a position change and tight end might be the perfect spot. Perhaps he could even play defense, but staying on offense might be smoother. As for Day, it seems he might be a name that pops up soon in the transfer portal. And how about Noah Kim, the freshman QB? I think he sticks around, for now.

More: Mel Tucker welcomes first recruiting class at Michigan State, knows work isn't finished

Q. Harlon Barnett did a really good job of coaching up the defensive backs, especially (Angelo) Groce, (Chris) Jackson and (Shakur) Brown. So how do you square that with the fact that Jackson isn't on the team and inexplicably Julian Barnett is in the portal? -- @pfnnewmedia

A. I’m going to combine this with your question about Barnett and Devontae Dobbs not playing and how you assume it hurts a recruiting pipeline. I want to be sure I understand where we’re going with this. Barnett “coached up” three of four guys and our focus is on the one that’s leaving? This, to me, is the obsession with recruiting rankings. I think we can agree that Harlon Barnett has a good track record developing defensive backs, so if Julian Barnett is having trouble getting on the field, where do we think the issue is? Sorry, I’m not pinning this on the coaches. It’s inexplicable to you only because you see four stars. Same with Dobbs.

“Upside” only takes you so far. At some point, you have to get it done on the field. Julian Barnett did not do that despite multiple opportunities on both sides of the ball. And if you want to pin the coaches with some odd criticism of Dobbs, go back to last year and see how many snaps he had as fellow freshmen Nick Samac and J.D. Duplain became starters.

Q. Odds MSU picks up a certain 5-star LB from USC? -- @Aurelius291

A. You’d have to think they’re pretty good at this point. Obviously, we’re talking about Palaie Gaoteote, the brother of Ma’a Gaoteote, the four-star linebacker who flipped from Southern Cal and signed with Michigan State on Wednesday. A high school teammate of the Spartans’ Jalen Nailor and Jacob Isaia, that was a possibility already, but the signing of his brother puts Mel Tucker and his staff in a good position to land an impact player.

Q. I’m oddly confident about Benny honoring his commitment, but Estime and VanDeMark, not as much. Over/under 50% chance on each in your opinion? -- @CoreyOstrum

A. Offensive lineman Rayshaun Benny, running back Audric Estime and offensive lineman Geno VanDeMark are the three commits that did not sign on Wednesday, and I’m with you on Benny, but I feel the same way with VanDeMark, as well. This is more of a hunch than anything, but if you’ve read some of the things VanDeMark has said, it sounds like he’ll be sticking with MSU. Rutgers is the other team really pushing, and unless another mystery program swoops in, I think he signs in February. Same with Benny. As for Estime, that seems like more of a toss-up. I will say, the fact he did not sign Wednesday with Notre Dame is at least encouraging, but it’s a long way to go until February.

Jordon Simmons

Q. I had high hopes that Coach Kap was going to fix the offensive line, but that didn't happen, in fact, it looks worse than last year. What hope do we have of seeing a better unit in ’21 or is it going to be more of the same? – @pfnnewmedia

A. The question refers to offensive line coach and run game coordinator Chris Kapilovic. I’m going to cut some slack to Kapilovic on this. In fact, I’m going to cut some slack for the entire coaching staff and nearly every player, especially the inexperienced players. I think it’s impossible for us to underestimate the fact this staff didn’t get on the field with this team until just weeks before the season began. It will sound like an excuse, but I think the way the offensive line has played over the last three games shows that progress is being made. The running attack against Northwestern was obvious and while it wasn’t great against Ohio State, it was still better than most of the first four games.

And with the way Jordon Simmons ran the ball last week at Penn State – 72 yards on 14 carries – it looks like things are starting to get figured out. Look past some of the numbers – like sack yardage coming off team rushing totals – and see that there were signs of life on the ground the last few weeks. There’s your hope, along with continuing to improve recruiting.

Q. What seniors do you expect to stay on the football team for 2021? -- @witkowtoboggan

A. Man, this is a tough one. I have to be honest and say I’m not sure if any will be back next year, not to mention a few fourth-year juniors who don’t play that much. It’s all about whether they want to be back combined with whether the coaching staff wants them back. It’s a two-way street. Who might stay? I’d put K Matt Coghlin, TE Matt Dotson, DE Drew Beesley and DE Jacub Panasiuk at maybe. Same with offensive lineman Jordan Reid, who opted out and did not play this year. I’d expect LB Antjuan Simmons to head to the NFL. It’s a tough call on guys like S Tre Person, OL Matt Allen, OL Luke Campbell and OL AJ Arcuri.

Q. Over/under on incoming transfers? --@NickStenholm

A. This is another tough one, but some of it will depend on what other recruits sign by February and who leaves via the transfer portal. There’s one coming in already and potentially another one soon. I’d put the over/under around five, and it’s up to you to pick which way it goes.

Q. Can anyone on the basketball team legitimately guard Luka or Kofi? -- @nybergjo

A. Glad we didn’t get out of here without at least one basketball question. After all, Big Ten play does start Sunday at Northwestern and the Spartans do happen to be the No. 4 team in the nation. They don’t have anyone who can, on their own for an entire game, check Iowa’s Luka Garza or Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn. But the Spartans are deep, especially at that position. Julius Marble has the muscle to keep up, if not the height, but Marcus Bingham has the length to bother them. An interesting wildcard could be Mady Sissoko. We’ll see how far along the freshman is by the time MSU faces those teams, but he has the size and strength. The only question is, will he be ready for that big of a role?

Twitter: @mattcharboneau