Despite his critics, Panthers' Stull perseveres
Try as he might to ignore it, Bill Stull is aware of the scrutiny that comes with playing his position and the detractors whose criticism of him devolved into character assassination.
If message-board posters weren't mocking Stull's accuracy and arm strength, they were harping on his chinstrap beard and earrings in insisting why he has no business being Pitt's quarterback.
Yet, Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt anointed Stull the starter entering training camp Tuesday, and the 6-foot-3, 215-pound fifth-year senior views it as his next challenge in a series of them.
"You can't really help but be aware of it, whether you're looking at (the Internet) or not," said Stull, a Poland, Ohio, native who played at Seton-La Salle High School. "I know my hometown, the people in it. I've played football here since I moved here in middle school. I'm used to it. I take it. I have no problem with it. It's not the greatest feeling in the world, but I'm mentally tough enough to put that aside and use it as fuel.
"One minute you're on top of the world, winning football games left and right. You throw a couple picks, and people are calling for your head. It comes with the territory, the consequences that come with it. You've got to put those things aside mentally and worry about what does matter: it comes down to winning football games."
Never mind that Stull led Pitt to twice as many victories than defeats in his first full season as its starting quarterback. What he is most remembered for is completing only 7-of-24 passes for 52 yards with an interception before being pulled in the fourth quarter of a 3-0 loss to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl.
Eight months later, such vitriol still fills the Pitt-based Rivals.com site, www.pantherlair.com : If Stull plays one down it will prove that either (new offensive coordinator Frank) Cignetti is just as delusional as Wanny or that Cignetti has no say in anything concerning this offense. Either way, we are screwed. ... Stull sucks. I really hate to be that blunt about it but it really is the truth. For you guys to expect this drastic improvement now is beyond wishful thinking. Why do we limit ourselves to such mediocre play• It is mind-boggling to say the least.
That defeat left a bitter aftertaste on a 9-4 season and caused Wannstedt to open the quarterback competition in spring drills. Stull was forced to compete with junior Pat Bostick and redshirt freshman Tino Sunseri to retain his starting job. Now that Stull has won that battle, he has to prove he can lead a Pitt offense without the services of star tailback LeSean McCoy at his ready disposal.
"People have a tendency to lose sight of three things that Billy's been part of since he's been here and played," Wannstedt said. "Even though his name has been talked about in this city for four years, last year was his first year starting. If you asked the average guy on the street, they'd say, 'Oh no, Bill Stull has been playing for four years.' ... He's played 13 games. He was making progress last year week after week after week and was playing as good as he had played all year in the Rutgers game when he got hurt."
A collision that caused a concussion and stinger in the third quarter of the Rutgers game — Stull had completed 16-of-22 attempts for 279 yards — had a dramatic effect on his season. In the seven games prior to the injury, Stull had a 60-percent completion rate and averaged 223.1 yards a game. In the final five games, he completed 51.7 percent and averaged 158.8 yards.
"After the injury, I don't know if it was physical or psychological," Wannstedt said, "but he did not come back and play like he was playing in the front half of the season."
Compounding the problem was that Stull suffered a bone bruise in his left knee. As a result, the right-hander had difficulty planting on that leg to throw the ball — and it showed in his erratic play. After the injury, he appeared gun shy, less willing to remain in the pocket and absorb big hits.
"I was used to playing with some type of injury — we all do — and I really didn't think it affected me," Stull said, "but looking back and talking to some coaches, it really did. Having concussions and stingers, all those things add up. I'm the type of person that I'm not going to blame anyone or anything for not performing well. I'll take it on the chin."
Not that opposing Big East coaches blamed him.
"I have a lot of respect for Bill because I think he did a great job of staying in there," Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe said. "When you get knocked around there a little bit, it's not easy to do. I tell people all the time, it's easy when you can stand back there and pat it a few times and throw it in seven-on-seven, but when somebody is literally trying to separate your head from your shoulders, it's a little bit different, particularly when you're coming off an injury. He showed a lot of moxie and a lot of guts because he got back up in there and stood in the pocket."
Where Wannstedt went with Stull over Bostick late last season, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano stood by his struggling quarterback early on. Senior Mike Teel threw seven picks and three touchdowns, as the Scarlet Knights started 1-5 last season. Yet, Schiano stood by Teel, who rewarded him with a career game against Pitt: 361 yards passing and six touchdowns.
"The key is, if you believe in a guy, you stick with him," Schiano said. "You can't be blind, but you do what is best for the program. It can't be an emotional thing. It has to be what's best for the team."
Wannstedt warns that quarterback is a position that must be handled with care, not only for the message that it sends the signal caller but the rest of the offense, and he cautioned that playing musical chairs can shatter a player's confidence. He also believes quarterbacks, like head coaches, receive more credit than they deserve, and, subsequently share the burden of more blame.
Stull claims that his harshest critic is the one in the mirror.
"If you think the critics are tough on me, you should see how I am on myself," Stull said. "You can't say anything worse than I say to myself. You have to be that way, playing this position with the demands it has."
And the Panthers say they have seen a change in Stull, who has made an attempt to take more of an active and vocal leadership role in his final season. Not surprisingly, he takes pains to make sure it's positive reinforcement that he's shouting to his teammates.
"It speaks very highly of him, how he was able to bounce back, because he takes a lot of negative criticism with a grain of salt," Pitt senior tight end Nate Byham said. "He's going to surprise people. A lot of people don't think too highly of him as a quarterback, but as a teammate, I've seen him improve, and I think he's going to be a good player. He's going to be a lot calmer in game situations. He's going to be able to stand in the pocket longer.
"He's going to do a great job this year. I don't think we're going to have a problem with the quarterback situation the way people think."