I want to start this post optimistically, so we will begin with one basic premise. It can't get any worse than last year. Of that I am confident.
Everything else, however, is very difficult to predict when it comes to the quarterback position for Michigan State in 2021. Out is Rocky Lombardi, who was as turnover prone as they come, and completed less than 50% of his passes in his Spartan career. Returning is Payton Throne, who showed flashes in his limited playing time, but is still very green. In is Anthony Russo, who has a ton of college experience, but has displayed some questionable decision making resulting in 32 career interceptions in 27 career games.
The battle for starting reps between Russo and Thorne will likely last until (and possibly through) the week 1 conference match-up against Northwestern, and before you get too worried about that, remember that Conner Cook and Andrew Maxwell's (and Tyler O'Conner's) QB competition lasted 4 weeks into the 2013 Rose Bowl season. Obviously it's not an ideal situation, but it's one we've seen work out positively in the not to distant past. Whenever the battle finally works itself out, we will get a glimpse into what this staff values, as the two couldn't be more different.
Russo is experienced, he has 27 division 1 college football games under his belt. He has over 6,000 yards and 44 TD passes on his resume, he has 8 games with 3+ TDs, he has attempted 899 passes, he has seen every defense in the book, and he has the arm talent to take advantage when he sees the hole in the defense. While that all sounds great, he also has some bullet points on his resume that make you scratch your head. He has played under 4 head coaches (if you include an interim), 3 offensive coordinators, and 3 QB coaches. Is that a positive because he has learned different systems and adapted his game to fit different offenses, or is it a negative because he's never been able to find a comfort level with a scheme? He has thrown 32 interceptions. Is that acceptable because of the lack of talent around him dropping passes and running the wrong routes, or is that a result of him making bone-headed decisions? For as much as we know about Anthony Russo after 3 years of starting experience, there is still a lot that we haven't seen, and when we include the jump from the AAC to the Big Ten, it's tough to feel confident one way or the other about Russo's projection.
Opposite Russo in the starting competition is Payton Thorne, a player with four division 1 college football games and just one start. He has 582 yards and 3 TDs on his resume, he has 1 game with 3+ TDs, he has attempted 85 passes, he has seen exactly 3 defenses, but he has a running ability that his competition doesn't possess. I argued from the start of last season that Thorne's combination of football IQ and duel-threat play style should have earned him more reps, but we had to wait until the Indiana game when we were already down big to see what he had on the field. What we saw was an inexperienced QB. One that made some exciting plays that made you jump off the couch, and one that often escaped clean pockets, and tucked and ran instead of keeping his eyes downfield. All in all I think MSU fans were reluctantly excited to see what Thorne could do with a full off-season as the starting QB going into 2021 before Russo announced he was coming for the job.
Between these two quarterbacks we have one with a ton of college experience, and one with very little. We have one with a gun-slinger mentality, and one game manager. We have one pocket passer, and one running threat. We have one senior, and one sophomore. There is still a lot to be worked out behind the scenes, but the good news is that the floor of the position has been raised. The QB floor that Rocky Lombardi provided is no longer going to be the case in 2021 with two capable starters at our disposal. If you're forcing me to pick the starter on September 3rd in Evanston against Northwestern, I'll say Anthony Russo, but both players will get snaps. I think that Russo wouldn't have transferred here if he wasn't going to be given every opportunity to start, and while I don't think the coaching staff is going to rest on any per-conceived notions when it comes to picking the starter for this season, I do think Russo's experience will work in his favor when it comes to a staff preparing to face a conference opponent the first week of the season.
Behind Russo and Thorne is spring football darling Noah Kim (RS Freshman), and early enrollee freshman Hamp Fay. While there is intriguing talent in both players, I think 2022 is the year to start bringing them into the conversation of potential starters.