When Michigan State backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi worked out at his high school, Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, in between spring camp and summer conditioning this summer, he told Valley coach Gary Swenson that he’s the backup punter for the Spartans.
“He just made a reference, ‘Hey, I think I’m the backup punter,’” said Swenson, Lombardi's high school coach. “I didn’t take it seriously. I kind of just laughed it off and he said, ‘No, I think I really am.’”
Now, after punter Jake Hartbarger was injured against Arizona State and is out 6-8 weeks with a bone bruise, Lombardi is the starting punter. He had one punt for 32 yards against the Sun Devils, as the 24th-ranked Spartans didn’t travel to Tempe with punter William Przystup.
Which also was his first on-field appearance for MSU.
“I wasn’t expecting it, but I was ready,” Lombardi said after practice Tuesday. “I got my helmet back on and went out and swung my legs a few times to see if I could get loose and went out and punted the ball.”
However, this wasn’t Lombardi’s first time punting.
The redshirt freshman only punted his senior year at Valley, after Swenson and his staff saw him punt balls before practice. And at the time, Swenson’s team couldn’t find a consistent punter, which led to Lombardi sharing time with current Northern Iowa kicker Nate Murphy.
“Rocky was just fooling around with it one day before practice (and) looked like a pretty good punter,” Swenson said. “He could turn the ball over without having worked at it, which in high school is a challenge. So it wasn’t this big momentous occasion.”
It wasn't something major because of the success of the 2016 Tigers, who went 9-1 that season. Swenson said Lombardi didn’t even have “a dozen punts.”
“We had a pretty good team. We didn’t have to punt that much and like I said, he split time with another guy,” Swenson said. “But, that was never what we needed, obviously, and what his main contribution needed to be. He’s just a good athlete, so he’s the kind of guy you can do a lot of things with and that happened to be in addition to all of his duties as a quarterback.”
Two years later, the now 20-year-old Lombardi has to get ready for MSU’s first Big Ten game of the season Saturday night against Indiana (3-0). And the Hoosiers have a punt-returning threat in wide receiver J-Shun Harris, who’s returned eight punts for 111 yards and a touchdown this season.
“I mean, you want to place it in a good position so the returner doesn’t have a good run lane,” Lombardi said. “But, at the end of the day it’s same kicking job. You want try and get as much hang time and as good as placement as you can — just a little more focus on that this week.”
To prepare, Lombardi said he took off his knee brace and now has a special left shoe designed for kicking.
He still gets reps in at quarterback in practice, but participates in special-team periods to practice punting, according to coach Mark Dantonio, who said "he's done a good job" so far.
“We always have special teams, especially stretch-type deal where you're either stretched or you have special teams,” Dantonio said at his weekly news conference Sept. 18. “He's doing that at that time and then we have different periods throughout the practice that are devoted to punting or a special teams emphasis part of practice, as well, where there's a four or five-minute period in there. He's getting an opportunity to do that and obviously there's after practice, as well.”
During these periods, Lombardi said he’s been working on his technique, with help from Hartbarger and special-teams analyst and former NFL kicker Shayne Graham.
“Jake has been helping a lot, and it broke my heart when I saw him go down,” Lombardi said. “And I wish he could be out there. But, he’s done a lot of help with me to improve my game.”
Lombardi said the objective of any punter, whether an All-Pro or a high schooler, is to “get the ball off and don’t get blocked.”
From there, he’s focused on catching the snap, which is different from fielding a snap as a quarterback.
“I mean it’s different, but you just focus in and catch the ball,” Lombardi said. “It’s really one of the easier parts of the job. It is harder than it looks, you know some people drop snaps and it can be tough. But, if you focus in and catch the snap you'll be fine.”
Lombardi said he doesn’t expect teams to rush him, because of the threat of MSU possibly running a fake with its backup quarterback being the starting punter. And he said he doesn't expect it because of his athleticism — as Lombardi was a four-sport athlete at Valley playing football, wrestling, baseball and track and field.
Being a four-sport athlete gave Lombardi the ability handle pressure and be competitive, he said.
“I’ve been in just as many high-pressure situations as anybody here,” Lombardi said. “So, it’s good to get those nerves out of the way.”
Lombardi said those nerves were lost in high school, even with his playing time this season coming at a position he stumbled into while goofing off before a high school practice.
“It’s not what I expected,” Lombardi said. “Coaches talk about it all the time how ‘high school to college is a big jump’ — and it is. But, at the end of the day, you’re still playing football, still doing what you did in high school.”