Niyo: New Spartans offensive coordinator looking for a CEO under center

John Niyo
The Detroit News

No one is sure when college football will be open for business again.

But whenever the time comes, Michigan State’s new coaching staff knows it will have its work cut out for it. After it got a late start following Mel Tucker’s hiring in mid-February, things came to an abrupt halt a month later in the face of a global health crisis.

And while every coaching staff in the country is looking for a way to replicate some of the learning that typically takes place during spring practice, for the Spartans’ new offensive coordinator, Jay Johnson, the search goes a little deeper than that.

Rocky Lombardi, a fourth-year junior, started three games in place of an injured Brian Lewerke in 2018.

“I’m looking for a CEO,” he said Wednesday, speaking on a conference call on what would have been the first day of Michigan State’s second week of spring ball.

More specifically, Johnson’s looking for someone who’ll replace Brian Lewerke, a three-year starter at quarterback who set a school record for career total offense during his time in East Lansing.

There are a few likely candidates, but none with much in the way of executive experience.

Rocky Lombardi, a fourth-year junior, started three games in place of an injured Lewerke in 2018, while redshirt sophomore Theo Day saw only mop-up duty and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne ran the scout team last season. Redshirt sophomore Eli McLean and incoming freshman Noah Kim round out the quarterback room, and the fact that it’s a virtual room for now only adds to the uncertainty for Johnson, a 50-year-old coach who has been a coordinator at four previous FBS schools prior to joining Tucker’s staff at Michigan State.

More: Offensive coordinator hopes to see Spartans put 'multiple' points on the scoreboard

“Just like anything, I think there’s an establishment of who we’re gonna be and how we’re gonna try to do it,” Johnson said. “So the important thing for me and for our quarterbacks, the first time I met with the guys here it’s … they’re the CEO of this team. That’s how I look at them. So when we have our position meeting, it’s like having a board meeting.”

Again, those board meetings are all online, as Michigan State’s coaches — like those on staffs all across the country — try to stay connected with their players through laptops and tablets and over the phone. But for Johnson, who was able to get some face-time with his quarterbacks before players scattered, the message is the same as it would be if they were together inside the Duffy Daugherty Building.

“They’re all involved equally and I’m looking for someone who has that presence about them,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, their No. 1 job is to get the other 10 around them to play at a new level and to lead our team.

“Obviously, you need the skill set and the other things to go with it. But that’s what I really stress with them — having that approach, having that plan, having that presence to you, where their (teammates are) gonna raise up their game and play to new levels. … Our meetings are very much a discussion — a conversation — not just me up there talking. ‘Rocky, what’s happening here?’ ‘Theo, what’s going on here?’ ‘Payton, what’s the coverage?’ ‘Eli, what do you see?’ So it’s a constant conversation and a dialogue, but I’m looking for a CEO. I expressed that the first time I met with them, and I hope we have one.”

Taking it outside

He hopes he’ll get a chance to figure that out on the field at some point. No one can say for sure when health and safety concerns will ease enough for that to happen, whether that’s some kind of summer mini-camp or perhaps not until the fall.

Theo Day

In the meantime, all Johnson, who will be the quarterbacks coach in addition to his duties as coordinator, has to go on is what he can see on film. And most of that is practice film from last spring and fall.

Lombardi’s performance as a starter wasn’t all that encouraging after an impressive fill-in debut against Purdue in 2018. His career numbers: 75-for-175 (42.9%) for 812 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions in 15 games.

Day didn’t play as a freshman and saw only a handful of snaps against Western Michigan and Penn State last season. Thorne, a former three-star recruit out of Naperville, Illinois, drew praise for his work on the scout team as a freshman and might have emerged as the frontrunner for the starting job under former coordinator Brad Salem.

Johnson isn’t about to handicap the race, since he hasn’t seen any of the candidates on the field himself. But he did offer some thoughts on both Day and Thorne when asked Wednesday. He noted Day’s size and “sneaky” athleticism, “but the thing I like about Theo is the ball comes out really well.” As for Thorne, whose father was a college quarterback and head coach, Johnson notes he “seems to be very knowledgeable and seems to really understand the game” and “can do a lot of things.”

Mixing it up

And that — eventually — is the goal. Johnson says he wants his offense to be “multiple” in many ways, from the tempo to the personnel groups to the formations. Steven Montez, who played quarterback for Johnson last year at Colorado, described it as a pro-style offense with “some spread and RPO tendencies.” In other words, it’s basically the same thing everyone is trying to run these days.

Montez only spent a year in Boulder with Tucker’s staff, including Johnson, a former college quarterback who threw for more than 8,000 yards at I-AA power Northern Iowa nearly 30 years ago. But Montez, speaking at the NFL scouting combine last month, did credit Johnson with helping him improve his footwork and understanding of the game in the short time they had together.

“I had a tendency to get out and run around and basically try to make some stuff up,” said Montez, who threw for 2,808 yards and 17 touchdowns with 10 interceptions in 2019. “He really taught me to climb in the pocket and he really taught me a whole lot about defensive football and run scheme.”

Not surprisingly, that’s where Johnson says he’s starting with the quarterbacks on Michigan State’s current roster, too, “really looking at what teams are doing defensively and kind of learning that language."

From there, though, the picture gets bigger, not smaller.

“My approach will be very holistic with those guys,” Johnson added. “If we’re gonna run inside zone, outside zone, counter, power — whatever you’re gonna run — I want them to know the ‘why’ and what’s all involved in that. So a lot of our discussions have been on that.

“I mean, shoot, they’re making the O-line calls, they’re doing it all, because I feel that if we can be very well-rounded in that capacity then they can have a plan and they can go execute the plan."

For now, though, the best-laid plans are all mostly theoretical. And that makes the business of picking a new CEO all the more challenging.

Twitter: JohnNiyo