There is no doubt that the Michigan State offense was horrible last year.
Temple transfer Anthony Russo builds case for starting QB job
But now with Lombardi out as a transfer to Northern Illinois, the keys to the starting quarterback job are up for grabs, and there are two main candidates: Thorne and graduate student Anthony Russo, an immediately eligible transfer from Temple.
A quarterback competition, while not always ideal for head coaches, can sometimes be a good thing as it can bring out the best of the two competitors. For Russo, a quarterback competition is not anything new.
“I think the biggest thing that I have learned through being in a couple of different quarterback competitions is just to focus on you,” Russo said on Tuesday. “You can’t control how other guys practice what they do. All you can control every day is how hard you work, how well you prepare, your attitude, your energy that you bring to practice. Those are all things that you have control of every single day.”
Additionally, Russo has experience in terms of learning new offensive schemes. He believes that all the changes in schemes he has experienced have taught him the way in which he learns best — which is why he draws up plays on a whiteboard every night to help him learn the playbook.
“I definitely have been in a few different systems, which I think definitely is worked to my advantage a little bit,” Russo said. “I don’t think there’s many pass concepts and run plays and different things that I haven’t seen at this point, being this is my fourth offense now in five and a half years. I think also having to learn a few different systems, I kind of realize the different ways that it is easier for me to learn.”
Russo joined the Owls in 2016 but redshirted and saw his first action on the field in 2017 as a holder and then finally got his break as the primary backup quarterback the next season. After two games, Russo took over as the starting quarterback and went 7-3. He entered 2019 as the full-time starter and threw for 2,861 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. His 2020 season was cut short to just three games due to injuries and COVID protocols, but he was having a solid season including throwing for four touchdown passes in each of the last two games he played.
For the transfer, having his season cut short left a lot to be desired. Russo also desired a family-oriented environment.
That's an important value to Russo, which is why he originally went to Temple, just 20 minutes from his hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania. But it was the displeasure of his own progression at Temple and his interest in the style that Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach Jay Johnson implemented that played a part in his decision to join Michigan State.
“They are very family-oriented here, which is something that I take pride in being a family-first kind of guy,” Russo said. “They kind of just spoke about how much of a family atmosphere it is here in Michigan State and how the team is very tight-knit. The coaching staff is very personal with their guys, and I fell in love with it right away. It is the type of team and the type of program that I’ve always wanted to be in and now that I am in it, it is a dream come true.”
The Spartans held their first of the spring scrimmages Saturday where both Thorne and Russo were able to get their feet wet in their first game-like action since the fall. Coach Mel Tucker and Johnson both mentioned that there was more of an emphasis on the run game, but the quarterbacks, specifically Russo and Thorne, both got in their share of reps.
“I can tell that he (Russo) is learning the offense, and he’s getting a better understanding each time he goes out there,” Tucker said. “He’s a mature player. It is not too big for him. He’s got a really good pocket presence. He is willing to step up in the pocket standing there and deliver the ball. He’s got a strong arm, and he can make all the throws.”
While scrimmages are a nice tool of measurement for this competition, they are also great opportunities for improvement. One thing that Johnson mentioned, in particular, he has been working on with Russo, who threw 32 interceptions in 31 games, is the ability to not force passes when they are not there.
It is a problem with a lot of young quarterbacks who try to be the hero of the game. It often leads to bad interceptions, which MSU had 12 combined last year between Lombardi and Thorne.
“Every time I go out on the field I want to be perfect," Russo said. "I know that’s not a reality but that is my goal. I think when I was getting recruited here I did not watch too much of my film with coach Johnson and coach Tucker. I know coach Johnson and myself spoke about exactly what I just said about times that we were down in games, trying to do too much, trying to make the big throw, and fit it into tight windows and that’s where I got myself into trouble.”
Working on that discipline when making reads, as well as some other mechanicals like footwork, which Russo said he was not too pleased within Saturday’s scrimmage, are aspects he needs to work on in order to take the reins of Michigan State. The job certainly will not be handed to him, but his experience with quarterback competitions and learning new offensive schemes, along with some hopeful improvements in the spring, should blaze the trail for Anthony Russo to take the opening offensive snaps Week 1 at Northwestern.