Taking a deeper look Sunseri: Deeper look pays dividends
Pitt QB Tino Sunseri scouted himself this summer and learned his biggest weakness was throwing the long pass. Now, that's no longer the case.
August 17, 2011 8:00 AM
Post-Gazette photo illustration
Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri
By Paul Zeise Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pitt redshirt junior quarterback Tino Sunseri is the son of a defensive coach and a student of the game, so this past offseason he decided to watch film and do some scouting.
The player he was interested in watching was himself. His intention was to figure out what an opposing defensive coordinator would see when he watches the same tapes.His conclusion was simple -- he didn't throw the deep ball very well, and it got worse, not better, as the season went on. He was trying too hard to place the ball instead of just letting it fly.
So many days this summer -- after the Panthers' conditioning workouts -- he rounded up any receivers he could find and had them stand deep down the field and worked on throwing the ball to them in different spots.
"I had Devin Street or Mike Shanahan out on the field," Sunseri explained, "and I would let them stand so I could just get a feel for the trajectory of the ball, where it needed to be placed, where it needed to be put for our guy to come down with it.
"I just wanted to make sure I know where to throw it and how to get it there."
Sunseri, whose father, Sal, is a former Pitt player and a defensive assistant coach at Alabama, said he worked on his arm strength and now doesn't have to work quite as hard to throw the ball downfield and in front of his receivers.
Sunseri has done an excellent job of connecting with his deep receivers at camp. Monday, he threw a nice pass for about a 40-yard touchdown to running back Ray Graham and Tuesday he connected for two passes of 30 yards or more.
He said he feels more confident and expects to get better in games because he will be able to throw against spread-out defenses that will be trying to cover Panthers receivers all over the field.
"I think that's the best thing about this offense: If we can start converting the long throws consistently, defenses are going to have to adjust and pick their poison," Sunseri said. "They are already spread out, but we aren't a true spread team because we can run the ball and do it with power with Ray Graham. So teams have to figure out if they are going to move up and stop Ray or cover the rest of the field.
"Last year, we weren't very good at making teams pay for moving up to stop our running game because I just didn't complete enough of those deep throws. I wanted to make sure we can do that this year."
The deep ball was noticeably absent from the Panthers' offense last year. Despite that, Sunseri had a good season, starting all 13 games and completing 223 of 346 passes (64.5 percent) for 2,572 yards, 16 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. His best game was against Syracuse, a 45-14 Pitt win, when he completed 17 of 24 passes for 281 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Last season was Sunseri's first as a starter. This year, he is stronger, a little faster and a lot more confident in what he is doing and, according to his coaches, he has taken the reins as the offense's leader.
While some question his ability to run Todd Graham's high-powered offense, particularly since the quarterback must be a runner on some plays, he thinks it is a perfect fit for his skills.
"Now that we've been able to go vertically down the field, it has been fun to watch this offense develop," Sunseri said. "And the read-option stuff [running plays involving the quarterback] is fine for me, I'm not going to break off 75-yard runs, but I can run fast enough and well enough to get first downs, to keep drives alive, to make defenses respect that part of my game -- it is just something to think about.
"I'm also stronger, and there were times last year when I felt guys pulling on my jersey from behind that I felt like, if I were stronger, I could have pulled away from them."
Pitt's new quarterbacks coach, Todd Dodge, was a little skeptical when he first arrived because he wasn't sure if Sunseri had what it took to run the Panthers offense.
That opinion changed quickly, and he is convinced Sunseri could be every bit as good -- or better -- than any quarterback Graham had when he coached at Tulsa.
"He's done some really, really good things, so many of them," Dodge said. "His understanding of our offense in a short period of time has been outstanding. He is having a great camp, and we are really excited about him and the fit that he is in this offense because he is so versatile.
"He can spit the ball out in a lot of different ways. There is no doubt in my mind that if he were still at Central Catholic when we came in, he'd be a scholarship offer guy because his skill set is exactly what we're looking for."
NOTES -- Devin Street (head) did not dress Tuesday. He was knocked out of the morning practice Monday and is day to day. Graham said Street had his "bell rung" and added that "he is recovering; it will be a process. He didn't get a lot of sleep and stuff, and we just had someone kind of monitor him and let him get rest." ... Redshirt freshman Anthony Gonzalez is still a quarterback, but he also now is an H-back and receiver. He has worked mostly with the tight end/H-back group the past two days. Graham and Dodge stressed he is still a quarterback first. "We are using him in a different role, we called him slash today," Graham said. "He is too good of an athlete to be sitting on the sideline as the third-team quarterback, so we asked him to come in so we could take a look at him at some receivers stuff, and we were somewhat impressed." ... Freshman walk-on Trey Anderson has moved ahead of Mark Myers for the backup quarterback role. Dodge said Myers needs to "step it up" and said of Anderson "if we played today, he'd be one play away [from starting]." Anderson is small (generously listed at 6-0, 180), but he throws the ball well and has impressed coaches with his command of the offense. ... The Pitt-Notre Dame game Sept. 24 officially will have a noon kickoff.