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Kovacevic: Pitt's Sunseri worth second look

| Friday, Aug. 26, 2011

On the January day Todd Graham was introduced as Pitt's football coach and redefined the term "high octane" by using it maybe 10 times a minute, I had one main question for the man: Do you have the right quarterback in place?

Still have the same question, really.

Tino Sunseri is a terrific kid, excitable and energetic, a real heart-and-soul sort. Spend enough time with him, and he seems a perfect fit for Graham's no-huddle offense. But being a "field general," as Sunseri calls himself, and playing the position are separate challenges, and be sure Sunseri realizes he has much to prove on the latter front.

"I'm up to it," Sunseri said after a practice on the South Side this week. "I believe I'm the right quarterback for this football team, sir."

The "sir" thing comes with the package. I didn't take it personally.

"First, I'm a competitor," Sunseri continued. "I'm a winner. I want to win no matter what. Everybody keeps talking about us throwing 40 times a game, but I'd be fine if we ran 100 times and I threw once. And when it's time to pass, I think I'm really going to be able to showcase my skills, my arm strength, my accuracy in this offense."

Skill and strength, as well as size, were significant issues when Sunseri, now a redshirt junior, became the Panthers' starter in 2010. Yes, he threw for 2,572 yards, with a 64.5 completion percentage and 16 touchdowns, respectable figures all. But ... well, there was something missing, and it wasn't easily quantifiable.

He just didn't look like a big-time Division I quarterback.

I saw a 6-foot-2 kid playing much smaller, getting dragged down by one-handed grasps. I saw a passing form little different than when he was at Central Catholic, resulting in a lot of wobbly flicks. And in the one that maybe sticks the most in the craw, I saw a blue-chip receiver in Jon Baldwin go underutilized without the deep ball.

But Sunseri isn't one of those athletes to be dismissed easily, and I'm very much open-minded about a second chance with his second go-round.

I like that he's a believer in Graham's offense. He began learning it the week after his coach was hired, practicing it on playgrounds with receivers Devin Street, Mike Shanahan and Cam Saddler, and he speaks of it to his teammates like a preacher.

"I bought in right away, and all our guys did," Sunseri said.

I like that he bulked up to 215 pounds of muscle, his arms going from twigs to tree trunks.

"He's such a different-looking athlete even from the day I met him," said quarterbacks coach Todd Dodge, hired shortly after Graham. "So much stronger. Faster and quicker, too."

I really like the throws I witnessed at practice. His spirals were tight, his timing near perfect. And, yeah, there were even a couple of heaves.

"You know, Tino gets a bad rap for the deep ball," Dodge said. "I think arm strength is one of his biggest assets. The difference now isn't that he's throwing farther. It's better timing."

To support the point, Dodge recently studied Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy's magnificent 2008 season at Texas when he completed an astounding 76.7 percent of his passes. As Dodge explained, "Every one of Colt's deep balls that was a fly route or a post route, it landed somewhere between 40 and 45 yards. You have to spin it, have to loft it, but the biggest thing is timing. This is one of the least of my worries with Tino."

It ranks right there, apparently, with Sunseri's ability to take a snap every 18 seconds.

"He's got a head for this offense," Dodge said.

The offense might even match Sunseri's physical tools.

He's no Pat White, but he can tuck and run well enough to keep a defense from keying on running back Ray Graham. He's no Cam Newton, but he's staying upright more often against a rush. He's no Sam Bradford, but the shotgun offers a chance to survey more of the field, a benefit at his height.

He's no Dan Marino, either, and that might be an underlying root of all the skepticism.

"This is Western Pennsylvania, and you've all had a lot of great quarterbacks here, Joe Montana and the rest," Dodge said. "Tino's the right guy for this offense. We believe in Tino."

I'll wait until that first deep ball.

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