Pitt's Sunseri capable of running new offense

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The coaching change at Pitt has brought a new offensive philosophy, a new offense and presumably a lot of new faces playing in a lot of different positions.

But as spring football drills conclude Saturday with the annual Blue-Gold game at Heinz Field, one face that won't change happens to play the most important position in the offense -- redshirt junior quarterback Tino Sunseri, who has seized the starting job from the first day of spring and has done nothing but improve and strengthen his position as the unquestioned leader of the offense.

First-year Pitt coach Todd Graham said that Sunseri entered the spring with a leg up on the rest of the quarterbacks because of his experience, but he has proven over time that he is more than capable of running the offense and leading the team.

"The whole key for us starts with the quarterback," Graham said. "And we need someone who manages the game and distributes the football and is very disciplined about what we are doing, and we have a guy who can do that [in Sunseri].

"I believe this, and I told [Tino] this -- if he becomes a disciple of our offense, meaning he disciplines himself and totally believes in what we are doing and he executes and just distributes the ball and just executes the system -- I believe he has a chance to surprise a lot of people.

"I think he has some skills, he is a coach's kid, he is smart and he has already absorbed an awful lot."

Graham said he has been impressed by Sunseri's work ethic, not only on the field, but also in the film room and his approach to learning the new system. He also said Sunseri has made the transition much smoother than it could have been.

Sunseri is one of three quarterbacks -- redshirt freshmen Mark Myers and Anthony Gonzalez are the other two -- who competed for the job. But Sunseri said he never questioned whether he would eventually be the starter because, although it was always his goal, it was never his primary focus.

"I wanted to control the things I could control," he said, "and that was just learning the system, improving all aspects of playing my position and improving my skills by working hard. The other stuff is always up to the coaches."

The fact that Sunseri is going to be the starting quarterback is not a surprise. A year ago, he beat out Pat Bostick and led the Panthers to a share of the Big East Conference title, a 9-4 record and a victory against Kentucky in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. He completed 223 of 363 passes (64 percent) for 2,686 yards, 18 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.

Sunseri improved as the season went on and felt more comfortable in the offense. Now he has been asked to start over again in a new offense, and he believes the transition is almost complete.

He credits former offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti with a lot of his progress this year. He said Cignetti taught him to play the position of quarterback and his system forced all of the quarterbacks to improve their knowledge of the game.

One big difference in this year's system is that Sunseri will be asked to run the ball more.

He has shown some ability to run this spring, but he knows his No. 1 priority is throwing the ball efficiently, and that's what he believes he does best.

"The good thing is that I started in a pro-style system, and coach Cignetti taught me the passing game and how to read safeties and learn leverage and make sure you distribute the ball and not take sacks," Sunseri said. "And then to carry that over into the spread, you are basically just spreading out the formation and now you create more throwing lanes for the receivers and it gives the defense more to cover from sideline to sideline.

"I'm enjoying it. I like it a lot because I think we're able to show off our team speed as well as my arm strength and me as a runner. I think that I am doing a good enough job of keeping the defense honest. I understand I am not a guy who is going to break off 80-yard runs, but I can get us 10 yards or 15 yards, just enough to keep the defense honest.

"The biggest adjustment has been the tempo. We all needed to learn how to execute at that fast pace," Sunseri said, "but also understand where we need to line up and understand the execution of the X's and O's."

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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