Payton Thorne vs. Anthony Russo — for now


Payton Thorne and Anthony Russo traded compliments and received praises from Michigan State football’s coaches Tuesday.

Who said there can’t be nicety among contestants in a quarterback competition?

Yet both Thorne, who ended the 2020 season as the Spartans’ starter, and graduate transfer Russo outwardly speak of being more invested in making individual improvements right now during MSU’s spring practice than worrying about what the other guy is doing.

“I’m comparing myself against myself. And I think that if you get caught up in the comparison game, you start to focus on the wrong things,” Thorne said after the Spartans’ seventh of 15 spring practices of the spring. “I’m just trying to get better every day with my play, and I think that’s the first step.”

Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne warms up before the game against Northwestern at Spartan Stadium Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.

Their first step in the actual competition to fill the starting job vacated by Rocky Lombardi’s transfer arrived Saturday, when MSU had its first spring scrimmage. While coach Mel Tucker said that no scoring per se was kept, he and his staff kept stats while pitting the first-team offense and defense against each other and the second-team units. That was meant to reach goals.

Tucker did not get into specifics and details, though he did allude to third-year sophomore Thorne — who started the Spartans’ finale against Penn State — being farther ahead in understanding the offense than Russo, who arrived in January at MSU via the NCAA transfer portal.

“Your quarterback has to be the No. 1 competitor — he has to be at that position,” Tucker reiterated. “When you touch the ball on every play, I mean, you gotta be the guy. You have to be a leader, you have to be able to take charge. You have to have command, you have to have poise, you have to have presence, and you need to be able to run the show.”

Despite being the new guy, Russo by far has the most experience in a quarterback room that also includes junior Theo Day, redshirt freshman Noah Kim and true freshman Hamp Fay. Russo, a started 26 games the past three years at Temple before a shoulder injury and COVID-19 halted his 2020 season after three games.

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The 6-foot-4, 240-pound native of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, went 92 of 135 with nine touchdowns and six interceptions in those games for the Owls, for whom he finished among the program’s top four in passing yards (6,287), completions (536), attempts (899) and touchdowns (44) in his five seasons.

Russo said he felt quickly that MSU’s pro-style offense under coordinator Jay Johnson would fit his NFL aspirations. He also believes the Spartans’ coaches can help him make the progress he needs to get that chance.

Michigan State quarterback Anthony Russo attempts a pass during spring football practice.

“I think the most important thing in any competition, especially at the quarterback position, is just understanding at the end of the day, we’re one team, we’re one heartbeat,” Russo said. “We all have that one, same goal of winning a Big Ten championship. And bringing Michigan State back to where it has been in the past. I think just reminding ourselves that although we are competing with one another, we’re there to make each other better.

“And at the end of the day, the more we push each other, the more we’re going to grow on the field and off the field and the better we will be at at our position and a better team we will be.”

Johnson pointed to Russo dealing with three coaching staffs in his five seasons at Temple as being helpful in adapting to his new settings.

“He’s been through a lot of I think transition and change there at his previous stop, and he’s handled it really well,” Johnson said. “But just like anything – and just like any good football players, particularly at the quarterback spot — you gotta work at it. And he’s been showing that he’s willing to do that. He’s really putting in a lot of time to try to learn it and learn the new language and all the things that go with it. And so far, he’s done a very nice job.”

Thorne, who was part of Mark Dantonio’s 2019 recruiting class, could have been miffed at Tucker and Co. for adding another quarterback. Lombardi, who started six of MSU’s seven games in going 2-5 last season, ultimately transferred to Northern Illinois after Russo arrived.

Instead, Thorne — whose father, Jeff, is a Division III national champion coach at North Central College in Illinois — embraced the chance to show he should be a Big Ten starting quarterback.

“I think that the competition brings out the best in a lot of guys,” Thorne said. “You got a decision to make when a guy’s coming in like that as to how you’re going to respond to it. I think that you got to respond to it in a certain way, and you just got to put your head down and work. And I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing lately. You gotta keep showing up every day and prove yourself every day.”

Thorne is more of a mobile option than Russo, who scored seven rushing TDs but only had 30 yards on 100 carries in his time at Temple. The 6-2, 215-pound Thorne had 47 rushing yards on 25 carries with a score in his four games last season, going 48 of 85 for 582 yards with three touchdown passes and three interceptions.

It was Thorne’s start against Penn State, though, that showed growth from early in the season. He was 22 of 39 with his three passing scores and one interception in the 39-24 road loss. Tucker continued to sound impressed by the early returns in Thorne’s first spring practices.

“Payton has done a nice job,” the second-year coach said. “Obviously, he has a pretty good grasp of our offense, and he plays with confidence. He knows what we expect from him is to run the offense, get us in and out of the right plays, make the proper checks, make the proper reads in the pass game and take what the defense gives you and take care of the football and lead and compete.”

With Lombardi leaving, the Spartans also lose the ability he showed to throw the deep pass, which was their best option to move the ball during a season where points and rushing yards both were nearly impossible to come by. However, Lombardi also was plagued by interceptions, and MSU wants to minimize the turnovers moving into this fall.

Lombardi, Thorne and Russo at Temple combined for 18 interceptions in their combined 10 games in 2020.

“What you find is when you get a pretty talented quarterback that particularly has good arm talent, sometimes guys think they can make every throw…,” Johnson said. “It’s an old cliché — take what is given — but it’s so true. We’re really working with all that, with Payton and everybody. It all goes to understanding what the defense is trying to do to us.”

Michigan State quarterback Theo Day warms up ahead of the Indiana game at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.

They aren’t the only quarterbacks this spring trying to show they deserve a chance. Neither Day nor Kim saw game action last season, and Fay is Tucker’s first high school quarterback recruit who arrived as an early enrollee along with Russo in January. Johnson said he struggled to get Day and Kim adequate reps for evaluation last fall with the stopping and starting of the season after not having spring practice a year ago when Tucker and his staff replaced Dantonio.

He calls this spring “really beneficial” for the three fighting to join Russo and Thorne in the competition.

“Now, as we get further along in spring, then we’ll kind of see how things evolve. That’s going to have to go, because we got to get the guys ready,” Johnson said. “They gotta go take the snaps, and we’re really in the process of doing that now.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football QB battle with Payton Thorne, Anthony Russo



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