Michigan State football QB Payton Thorne happy with his progress this spring
As Michigan State football finished its 15th and final spring practice April 24, 2021, Payton Thorne said he and the Spartans’ other QBs improved.
Michigan State Athletics
INDIANAPOLIS — With all of the changes to Michigan State’s roster during the offseason, the biggest question of the spring will still be unanswered when preseason camp begins: Who will be the Spartans’ starting quarterback when they travel to Northwestern on Sept. 3 to open the season?
“I feel good about the competition that we have,” coach Mel Tucker said Friday during the Big Ten media days. “It’s open, it’s an open competition. We have capable quarterbacks that all have different skill sets. But it’s going to be competitive.”
Tucker did not tip his hand as to whether sophomore Payton Thorne or Temple graduate transfer Anthony Russo might have the edge to replace 2020 starter Rocky Lombardi, who transferred to Northern Illinois. He likely won’t know until MSU opens preseason camp Aug. 5.
“It’s really close. Really close,” junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor said. “Neck and neck.”
Thorne started in place of an injured Lombardi in MSU’s last game of 2020, going 22-for-39 with three touchdowns and one interception in a 39-24 loss at Penn State. Overall, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Naperville, Illinois, native played in four games, completing 48 of 85 passes for 582 yards with three TDs and three interceptions. He also ran 25 times for 47 yards and a TD.
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Russo, who started 26 games over the past three seasons at Temple, played just three games in 2020 before a shoulder injury and COVID-19 halted his season. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Doylestown, Pennsylvania, native was 92-for-135 with nine touchdowns and six interceptions in those games. Russo left Temple ranked in the school’s top four in passing yards (6, 292), completions (536), attempts (899) and touchdowns (44).
Thorne appeared to have a slight edge during the Spartans’ final spring practice in April, and Tucker said part of that was due to Russo having transferred in January while Thorne was finishing his second season.
“He was still learning the offense, but not this summer,” Nailor said of Russo. “I think he’s got as good a grasp of the offense as well as Payton.”
Junior safety Xavier Henderson agreed with Nailor that the battle is close, saying each brings different physical tools but possess strong leadership capabilities.
“It’s still right there. This is honest — in my opinion, I don’t know (who will start), Henderson said. “They both bring different things. Payton’s maybe a little bit more mobile, but they both can throw the ball well. Russo can throw a fade very well. Payton understands our defense well and knows the weaknesses, so he’s picking us apart in (seven-on-seven). … They both look good, they’re both our leaders in their own way. And I think the competition only makes our team better.”
Tucker said the plan is to figure out who will start the Northwestern game during camp, rather than waiting until game week. And he also expects it to be a fierce battle between the two.
“I’ll say this, your quarterback needs to be your No. 1 competitor on your team,” he said. “And both of those guys are elite competitors.”
Tucker said “about 90%” of the Spartans have received COVID-19 vaccinations so far, with players set to report Aug. 4.
“We’re encouraging our players to get vaccinated,” he said. “And it’s all about education and individual conversations and being authentic and being real. It’s about trust.”
Tucker said players who are vaccinated will only be tested for COVID-19 if they are exhibiting symptoms, while those who are unvaccinated will have their saliva tested six times a week.
Senior defensive end Drew Beesley said getting vaccinated or not was a conversation point among the players this summer.
“Everyone has a choice in this matter,” he said. “If they choose to get, that’s fine; if not, then that’s fine, too. As long as you show up and do your job and do your part, it doesn’t really matter to me.”
Tucker said his staff have made it their goal to get as many players vaccinated as they can, and he admitted it is partly to try and keep them on the field.
“Your best ability is availability,” he said. “Our players understand how important that is, and we have a very competitive roster. The timing of a positive test could have, depending on the timing, it determines the magnitude and the effect on the team. So that’s all things that we take into account. So our goal is to get as many of our players vaccinated as we can.”