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As Spring Football gets underway for MSU, Payton Thorne makes progress and a case to start

April 8, 2021
MSU quarterback, Payton Thorne (10) photographed during a game against Indiana University on Nov. 14, 2020.
MSU quarterback, Payton Thorne (10) photographed during a game against Indiana University on Nov. 14, 2020. —
Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

As Michigan State begins spring practice, there is fierce competition at quarterback happening within the Spartans’ facility.

The competition is led by former Temple quarterback Anthony Russo and sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne.

Both are making their case to be the man under center for the Spartans.

As a true freshman, Thorne played in four games in 2020 including starting in the regular-season finale at Penn State where he threw for 325 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in a 39-24 loss. In those games, Thorne displayed an advanced knowledge of the game at a young age with the way he handled the offense.

“Payton has done a nice job, he obviously has a pretty good grasp of our offense, and he plays with confidence,” Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker said. “He knows what we expect from him is to run the offense, get us in and out of the right place, make the proper checks, make proper reads in the pass game and take what the defense gives you and take care of the football.”

Thorne is praised for his cerebral ability on offense, but he has a solid skill set to thrive at this level with the ability to make plays with his legs and an accurate arm, but as a freshman, he still would have those bumps in the road that come with garnering more and more snaps.

“Payton's tremendous,” Michigan State offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “He really does a tremendous job mentally, he's physically gifted athletically, and I think that biggest piece for him is being in the new system again in the fall. I think he started to grow towards the end of the year, and I think things are beginning to slow down for him a little bit and that's what he needs to happen because he's very high energy, and we need him to slow down a little bit for him. I think that's been occurring so far.” 

As Thorne got more experience, the improvement came.

In his first three appearances, there were flashes of potential but were often ended with a bad pass or trying to make too much happen. During the Penn State game and so far in spring ball, things have begun to formulate for Thorne.

“I think the experience in the fall and getting out there helped a lot,” Thorne said on Tuesday. “I wish we could have got that last game against Maryland as another game under my belt, but it's helped a lot and I feel like I'm a lot better player than I was in the fall. This is my first spring ball since I've been up here and I think we're six practices in, and I think that it's already paying off.”

Thorne’s cerebral ability comes from his family background: His father and grandfather were both coaches at the high school and college level along with his father Jeff Thorne being a quarterback at Eastern Illinois. All that time spent in a locker room with his father or grandfather allowed the Illinois native to gain an understanding of what it takes to be a quarterback at the Division I level.

“He's a go-getter,” Tucker said. “He's a worker, he’s always working to get better. I believe that he puts pressure on himself to get better and to push. He's a coach's kid, he knows what it's all about and you know he is wanting to compete.”

Thorne understands that to be the best that he can be, he has to be able to work each day and that will be key in him potentially earning the starting job.

To do just that, Thorne said he looks to one of the all-time greats.

“I heard Tom Brady say one time that he shows up every day to prove himself still to this day, you got to show up every day,” Thorne said. “If the greatest quarterback ever is saying that then no matter who you are, you better be showing up every day to prove yourself to not only your teammates but also to yourself.”


Thorne will have a legitimate shot at earning the starting job. If he earns it over Russo, it will be because he has more experience with the current playbook and has shown in practice that he can consistently make the right decisions and have the skills that can run the offense properly – something that came in flashes during his reps last season.

Russo has more arm talent, a more NFL-ready body and experience in many different offenses over his time at Temple. So Thorne will have to prove that his decision-making has grown over the offseason and that his athletic talents are enough to run the offense the way it should.

In his four games, he proved that at times he could be the guy for this Spartan football team. The competitiveness and tough work are there too for Thorne, but wins and losses will ultimately decide whether Thorne is the future for Michigan State.

“The guys that play on Sunday, most of all of them were winners in college, and that's what I'm focused on is seeing how many wins we can get in the win column this upcoming year and working for championships because that's, that's the standard here at Michigan State,” Thorne said.

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“That's been implemented by the guys that have come before us and it's our job to get back there,” Thorne said. "The past couple of years have not been good enough, and we know that the fans know that and that's our focus is getting back there.”


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