Could Michigan State football use 2 quarterbacks? Jay Johnson says 'it's a possibility'

Detroit Free Press
EAST LANSING – Jay Johnson expects Michigan State football’s quarterback competition to remain a battle up until kickoff Sept. 1 against Central Michigan.
And if it takes longer? The Spartans’ offensive coordinator doesn’t have a problem using two guys and letting it play out into the season.
“I don't really know yet. I've done that in my past some, so I'm not completely against it,” Johnson said Monday after MSU’s fourth practice of preseason camp. “I just think of what presents itself. At the end of the day, it's going to come back to the team and what we feel is best for our team and best for that room and how it affects the whole team.
“So if we think (using two quarterbacks) is in the best interest, yeah, that could be a possibility.”
The Spartans opened the job in the spring, and veteran Payton Thorne left the program in early May for Auburn after leading MSU to a 16-10 mark over his two seasons as the starter. Junior Noah Kim and redshirt freshman Katin Houser remain and continue their quest to become Johnson’s third starting quarterback in his and coach Mel Tucker’s fourth season. True freshman Sam Leavitt, like Houser a four-star high school prospect, joined the mix in June.
Johnson on Monday sounded much like he did during preseason camp in 2021, when Thorne and Temple transfer Anthony Russo battled to become the starter. Coaches remained mum all the way up until kickoff of the season-opener at Northwestern, but Thorne seized the job and started every game, leading the Spartans to an 11-2 record and top-10 finish. Despite being banged-up last season, Thorne took all but 44 snaps, 38 for Kim and six for Houser in their first collegiate action.
That means Johnson and Tucker are in a different position than the previous two QB battles at MSU, which featured at least one with some starting experience. Rocky Lombardi started once in 2018 and played in 16 games behind Brian Lewerke before beating out Thorne in 2020; Thorne started the final game of that season at Penn State before getting the job over Russo, who had 26 starts with the Owls before joining the Spartans.
“It's always different when you don't have a guy that's had the actual starting game experience,” said Johnson, who beat out future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner for the starting job three straight years when he played quarterback at Northern Iowa. “It's always, I think, a little bit different in the quarterback room when you're the starter, as far as how you handle that and how that happens. I don't think any of us will be able to answer that until Sept. 1.”
Though he needs to see how they perform when MSU goes full pads Wednesday for the first time, Johnson broke down his views of all three of the candidates in the nascent days of camp so far:
On Kim: “I think part of that difference a little bit for Noah is just the maturing process. … I really felt like even a year ago, his approach kind of changed – changed for the better – and he became a lot more locked in and focused and has really carried that now to this level, because obviously it is very much a different situation. He's the oldest guy in the room, he's been with us the longest. And from an experience standpoint of knowing, it bodes well for him. But I also think he's done the right thing in how he's approached it. It's really been positive.”
On Houser: “Katin has exceptional arm talent – I mean, freakish arm talent, and he's really gifted there. I think since his arrival here, there's been a couple opportunities that he's done a good job of running the ball and moving the ball with his feet. … Where he's come mentally and the command that he's had is really, really good, because you kind of get into that trust deal. And I'm at the point with him where he's really, really locking into that and doing a great job with all of that. So I think that makes him very marketable.”
On Leavitt: “His mental approach has been really, really strong. He understands it in the meeting room. I try to challenge him all the time, and he has the answer. And so Sam's done well. He's talented and kind of working out the flow of things, but it's been positive. He's right in there and competing. He shows good poise out there. We've tried to put him in some challenging situations early, and he's showed some good poise.”
Johnson laid out the criteria he has for what he needs to see for one of the three to lay claim to the starting quarterback position – whether it be temporarily or long-term.
“I think it's consistency. And we try to look at the whole picture of things and how they're performing,” he said. “At the end of the day, they need to take care of the ball and get the team into the end zone and score points. Sometimes that's a little bit harder to evaluate in a practice setting, but you have a pretty good feel for that.”
OL depth
Asked how deep he feels MSU’s offensive line can be and how many guys he ideally wants to play, Johnson pointed to the 2021 group that paved the way for Kenneth Walker III’s breakout season.
It's an interesting comparison, however, the experience factor between that line and this one is a major difference.
In 2021, the Spartans returned players who started a combined 160 games with the program; this year’s offensive line returns 77 career starts at MSU, led by 35 from left guard J.D. Duplain, 22 for center Nick Samac and 13 for right tackle Spencer Brown. Left tackle Brandon Baldwin started five games last season, and right guard Geno VanDeMark started the final two in 2022.
The second- and third-team line has a number of second- and third-year up-and-comers, plus the addition of 2022 junior college all-American Keyshawn Blackstock. So just how deep can the Spartans go this year in the offensive trenches?
“Well, I want to go as deep as I can, without obviously affecting the play” Johnson said. “And that's where I think it's interesting. … If you go back to '21, for a greater part of the year until we got a little dinged, we were playing 10 guys a lot. And I think we can be in that world. I don't know if it'll be quite that extreme, but I think we're approaching that.”
Sturdy Carr
Tight end Maliq Carr has impressed Johnson early in the preseason, and not by using his athletic ability and basketball hands to make catches.
He has been impressing in camp by using his leverage and size to become a better blocker.
“I know he has the skill set to run and catch and do all that,” Johnson said. “But what he's been doing physically in the run game has really taken a step, which makes him more of a complete player.”
With the graduation losses of starters Daniel Barker and Tyler Hunt from last year, Carr is the only returning tight end with a catch as a Spartan – the 6-foot-5, 255-pound junior had 11 of his 14 receptions, both of his touchdowns and 158 of his 209 receiving yards, in MSU’s final six games last season.

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