One year ago today was a much different spring ball for Michigan State. Succeeding a 2-7 season without a single spectator in attendance to an 11-2 season and a Peach Bowl victory, the buzz this spring is certainly stronger than the last.
Perhaps it’s the return of students to campus or the daily Twitter videos of star NFL players training with new Michigan State pass rush specialist Brandon Jordan at the practice facility, but the excitement for April 16th’s Spring Game is jumping in a rather hurry.
Last year, there was a giant question mark at quarterback. Rocky Lombardi transferred out after a rollercoaster six starts, Payton Thorne returned for his redshirt sophomore season after a promising start versus Penn State in the season finale, and Anthony Russo joined the program as a graduate transfer after starting 26 games at Temple. It took until the night of the season opener at Northwestern for Thorne to be named the starter, a decision safe to say as a good one.
Running back Kenneth Walker III received all the glory, deservedly so, but Thorne too had a sneaky good season. Now, with Walker off to the NFL, the attention turns to the now redshirt junior quarterback to continue MSU’s offensive prowess and possibly elevate it even higher.
“I expect to be better next year than I was last year,” Thorne said. “And I expect us as an offense to be better than we were last year.”
As with everyone else on the team, spring practices offer an opportunity to emphasize self-improvement rather than preparing for the week’s opponent. Thorne’s intangibles are some of his strongest attributes, but last fall confirmed the talent is there too. He broke the school’s single-season passing touchdown record with 27 and ranked near the top for many other Michigan State passing records.
To some, Throne’s breakout may have been a surprise and others not so much. One who likely wasn’t surprised was Brent Mosley, redshirt junior wide receiver Tre Mosley’s father. He had a knack for Thorne when he and Tre Mosley arrived as freshmen in 2019.
“The crazy thing is my dad was brought to my attention my freshman year when we had a scrimmage he came to watch. He was like ‘Payton Thorne's gonna be a good player here,’” Mosley said.
Taking strides as a leader can be just as critical as skill improvement to the team’s success, especially from the most important position on the field. A lot of the time it comes from experience or observing others as leaders. Even as Thorne earned more and more starts under his belt last fall, his personality and demeanor sharpened and matured immensely from last spring through the Peach Bowl.
Mosley, who made a career-high 35 grabs and should see an elevated role with Jalen Nailor’s departure, has taken note of Thorne’s leadership.
“Just the confidence as a leader,” Mosley said of the biggest difference he’s noticed in Thorne this spring. “I knew he was a vocal player coming in. You could tell by his energy. But as time went on and he felt more comfortable being vocal, you could definitely see the guys around the team on both sides of the ball, respect him and listen to him.”
Spartan fans got their first glimpse of extended play without Walker in the Peach Bowl. Thorne was rolling through the first half until a late second quarter interception led to a Pittsburgh touchdown to take a halftime lead. Then a strip sack of Thorne on the third play of the second half gave the Panthers an 11-point lead. Thorne’s play dipped steeply in the third until a one-on-one pep talk with Michigan State Football Head Coach Mel Tucker turned it around. He led MSU to a monstrous fourth quarter, completely turning the New Year’s Six bowl from a stubbed toe to a momentum builder for the offseason.
Whether Thorne or Tucker initiated that conversation, moments like those are encouraging from the team’s signal caller. Noticing your struggles and attacking them head on is a mature leadership quality, especially coming from someone yet to reach his 21st birthday.
“Payton's very cerebral,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “Coming from the football family with his dad and in that he really has a great grasp of things.”
“Sometimes as he and I've talked before, sometimes he's almost too good mentally that it gets him in trouble. And so even in spring ball, I said, 'Hey, come on back, just run the play,' because he knows so much.”
Suddenly, Thorne is the oldest of five quarterbacks on the roster and part of the new task comes with preparing the younger and possibly future quarterbacks of the green and white. Any three of redshirt sophomore Noah Kim, redshirt freshman Hamp Fay, and freshman Katin Houser could serve as the second-stringer with redshirt sophomore Andrew Schorfhaar, barring an impressive spring, likely the odd man out.
However, Tucker has preached that every position is an open competition. Thorne appears to have the starting role locked up, but any sort of a lackadaisical spring could be consequential.
“If you play like garbage, you're gonna get replaced,” Thorne said. “This isn't high school or middle school football where you're just guaranteed you're gonna play. You got to compete every day or else before you know it you're not gonna be playing,”
The loss of Walker is hurtful. A player of that caliber is extremely difficult to replace in just one year. But based on the trajectory of Thorne’s career, Michigan State may go just as far as Thorne takes them.
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