Sunseri's job: Keeping mind undercluttered
Reminded of his 26 consecutive starts streak, Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri gave his questioner a curious, sideways stare, as if to say, Yeah, but there is more to the story that you don't know.
Sunseri has been the leader of the Pitt offense over the past two seasons (14 victories, 12 defeats). His experience as a fifth-year senior is the main reason he will be under center Saturday at Heinz Field when Pitt opens the 2012 season against Youngstown State.
But don't assume he knows everything about coach Paul Chryst's offense merely because it resembles what he learned from 2008-2010 under former offensive coordinators Matt Cavanaugh and Frank Cignetti.
“I had 26 starts, but I also had four systems. It's not the same thing each year,” he said.
Keeping his mind uncluttered has been one of Sunseri's toughest jobs while evolving from a freshman who redshirted under Cavanaugh to a backup and then starter with Cignetti to a miscast piece in the speed-based, no-time-to-think offense under former coach Todd Graham.
The son of a coach — Sal Sunseri is defensive coordinator at Tennessee and a former Pitt All-American linebacker — Sunseri plays and practices with a stubborn self-assuredness that sometimes leads to poor decisions. But he is a diligent student of the game, doing his best prep work away from the field.
“I am always going back at night and making sure I am reading over the playbook, making sure I'm looking over everything to make sure it stays fresh, stays new,” he said. “Never thinking I know it because, obviously, I don't, fully.
“There is always something you can learn each night.”
The biggest positive for Sunseri is not that Chryst's pro-style offense is similar to what Pitt ran under Cavanaugh and Cignetti; it's that the system is not what Graham installed and, he says, failed to properly teach.
Sunseri said sloppy practices carried into games last season.
“It's nice to know people are going to end up in certain situations,” he said. “Last year a lot of people ran a lot of wrong routes. A lot of people weren't in the right route depths. It was kind of chaos on the field.
“That is the biggest thing Coach Chryst harps on, making sure people are in the right areas at the right time and doing it every time. You can't really take a play off. When you take a play off, that's when you get beat.”
Whether such demands lead to success is questionable, considering injuries to starting receivers Devin Street and Mike Shanahan have hindered growth in the passing game.
Chryst said his quarterback situation, including freshman Chad Voytik and sophomore Trey Anderson, has been one of “peaks and valleys.” He never criticizes a specific player — another change from Graham's style — but he always expects more from them.
“We have to keep grinding,” he said.
Quarterbacks coach Brooks Bollinger said he has seen improvement in Sunseri from spring drills.
“If you went back and watched the tape from the spring, the positive thing is you are not seeing the same mistakes that were made,” said Bollinger, a four-year starter at Wisconsin who played six seasons in the NFL. “He is learning from them. The timing with the receivers, the anticipation on throws, all those things.”
Bollinger said Sunseri's knowledge of the game has helped him learn the new offense.
“Tino's been around football a long time,” Bollinger said. “He understands the game. He knows what to do.”
Yet there was so much to unlearn, Bollinger said.
“The hardest thing for me with Tino, coming in in the spring, was stripping a lot of that stuff and making him start at square one within this offense,” Bollinger said. “It took a little work, but he bought into it, and now he's starting to reap the rewards of that.
“I think he has all the talent to play the position. He has the arm strength, the anticipation, and obviously the next thing is the mental capacity to not only see on the chalkboard and do it but be able to understand the game with his hands under center.”
Sunseri is approaching that point, but coaches never are satisfied.
“It's camp,” Bollinger said, “and it's never good enough. If you have a good day, it could have been better.”
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7997.