Auburn landed a huge commitment on Friday when former Michigan State starting quarterback Payton Thorne announced he will be joining the Tigers and first-year coach Hugh Freeze for the 2023 season. Thorne entered the transfer portal earlier this week as the spring window closed, and he joins a heated quarterback battle at Auburn that includes returning starter and dual-threat weapon Robby Ashford.
Thorne signed with Michigan State in 2018 and started parts of the last three seasons for the Spartans. He has 6,493 career passing yards, 49 passing touchdowns and 24 interceptions from 2020-22. He also added 270 yards rushing and scored six times on the ground. He started all 12 of Michigan State’s games last season, throwing for 2,679 yards with 19 touchdown passes and one rushing score.
Thorne’s best season at Michigan State came in 2021 when he led the Spartans to a New Year’s Six bowl win over Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl. He threw for 354 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Panthers, which capped off an 11-2 season for Sparty. He finished that breakout season with 3,232 yards passing and 27 touchdown passes.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder was a three-star prospect in the Class of 2019 out of Naperville, Illinois.
What does Thorne’s commitment mean for the Tigers and Spartans?
Freeze sets up a battle
It was no secret that Freeze has been interested in the transfer quarterback market not only during the most recent portal window, but the fall window that opened shortly after the end of the regular season. That became even more apparent when T.J. Finley, who started six games in two seasons, announced that he is leaving the program earlier this week. Finley’s move opened the door for a more experience signal caller to come in and battle with Ashford during fall camp.
Who will win? That depends on what Freeze wants to do with his offense.
Thorne’s success as a passer is hard to ignore, and something that Freeze certainly covets. Freeze helped Bo Wallace and Chad Kelly top the 3,000-yard mark when Freeze was the head coach at Ole Miss, and it’s not like either of those two are destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Thorne’s presence on the Plains represents a 180-degree turn from what Ashford can — and did –do with the offense. Ashford, a redshirt sophomore from Hoover, Alabama, rushed for 709 yards and seven touchdowns, but only completed 49.2% of his passes and threw as many touchdowns (seven) as interceptions.
The fact that Freeze went out and targeted a successful passing quarterback like Thorne (and others that didn’t land in Auburn) is a clear indication that he wants to find more consistency through the air than what he saw during spring practice.
Auburn’s 2023 outlook improves
Competition breeds success. Whomever wins the starting quarterback job will do so after a much more heated battle than it was expected when the Tigers opened spring practice. That should help Auburn make a leap after the disappointing 2022 season that saw the Tigers go 5-7.
Auburn’s schedule is about as navigable as an Auburn schedule can be. Sure, the Tigers have permanent rivals and SEC behemoths Alabama and Georgia on the docket, but both of those games are at Jordan-Hare Stadium — which is always a tough place to play. The Tigers get Vanderbilt as the rotating cross-division opponent and California as the Power Five out-of-conference foe.
Thorne’s arrival means that Freeze will have two very different options to choose from during fall camp. Even if one doesn’t win the job outright, the fact that he will have the luxury to have offensive diversity will likely land Auburn in a bowl game.
Michigan State’s QB battle should be interesting
Noah Kim and Katin Houser are the likely candidates to take over for Thorne for the Spartans, and it’s going to be interesting to see how Mel Tucker orchestrates what should be a wild battle during fall camp. Kim will likely be the front-runner after completing 14 of his 19 passes for 174 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions in a backup role last season.
Houser’s only action came in the Week 2 blowout win over Akron, but he only attempted two passes. However, he was a four-star quarterback out of football factor St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, California, in the Class of 2022.
The Spartans will add four-star true freshman Sam Leavitt this summer. The lack of experience across the quarterback room should put Leavitt in the mix prior to the Spartans opening night game vs. Central Michigan on Sept. 1.