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August 9, 2011Tino Sunseri has been asked the same question many times over:
Pitt's got a new, high-octane, no-huddle offense, but can the redshirt junior quarterback run it efficiently and effectively?
No matter how many times he hears it, though, he answers with the goal of making believers. He looks in the eye of his questioner, with no cracks in his voice and a stern confidence that emanates from his words.
When the games start, though, he'll have to convince fans with his actions and abilities on the field that he can efficiently lead the offense because its success falls on him.
"Look around any system in college sports or NFL, that's how the quarterback position is," he said at Pitt's media day Monday. "There's a lot of expectations taken upon him. He touches the ball every play. He has to make smart decisions and the right decisions, and that's how it is and that's how we embrace it in our room.
"We think that we win or lose by the play of the quarterback, and that's what we're going to do, go at it every game, try to execute and try to put our team in the best possible place to win."
Sunseri had a solid season in his first year as a starter in 2010. He completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 2,572 yards and 16 touchdowns against nine interceptions in Dave Wannstedt's pro-style offense.
Still, the most important stat from the previous year is 13: that's the number of games Sunseri started. The redshirt junior didn't put too much stock in experience before last season, but admits now that he benefited tremendously from the past year.
"You really do truly learn when you're backed up on the 10-yard line at Notre Dame and need to make a game-winning drive," he said. "I understand what that feels like know, and I understand what's expected of me."
Sunseri has also used this off season to become more of a complete player. First, he lit up Heinz Field in the Blue-Gold game, completing 35-of-55 passes for 416 yards and two touchdowns.
This summer, he has studied his playbook religiously and watched hours of film from spring practice, the spring game and highlights from last year's Tulsa team. He said he's now at a point where he doesn't think, he reacts.
Physically, he has tightened up his footwork and worked on his deep ball, admitting it tailed off toward the end of last season. He used the summer workouts to his advantage, getting in great condition to run the offense and has the lungs to vocalize entire practices and games.
Still, the biggest difference in the redshirt junior during the summer was easy for his teammates to see.
"The biggest thing is the leadership," redshirt senior offensive tackle Jordan Gibbs said. "He has a lot of leadership now, and I feel like leaderships the biggest thing you need to keep this thing together. The quarterback has the most important job on the team to keep this thing together."
"We're very confident in him," redshirt junior receiver Mike Shanahan said. "He has all the respect of the team."
Sunseri's teammates have expressed confidence in the quarterback, and head coach Todd Graham feels the same, lauding his quarterback all spring and summer for his dedication to learning the offense.
Graham said for the offense to operate at its full potential, it can't turn the ball over, and that starts with Sunseri. Graham has said there will be times of confusion, especially in the first few games where the important thing is getting to the next snap with the ball still in Pitt's possession.
"I have as much confidence in him as I have in any guy that I've had, and I have some good ones," Graham said. "He's really working hard at changing the things we want to change. I like that he's confident. He believes in himself, and I like that."
Graham's system has proven friendly to quarterbacks in the past. In 2006, Graham's inaugural season at Rice, Chase Clement threw for 1,707 yards with 21 touchdowns and five interceptions in just eight games.
Then in 2007, Graham's first year at Tulsa, quarterback Paul Smith completed 60.1 percent of his passes for 4,753 yards and 42 touchdowns against 19 interceptions. He also ran for 12 touchdowns.
However, it will be Sunseri running the offense for Pitt this fall. He has shown he has all the right tools and says all the right things to give the impression that the Panthers are in good hands. Now, he has to show it on the field, and Graham believes Sunseri is the guy to run this offense.
"If you just operate this system, it's one that's been proven to work and proven to work very efficiently," Graham said. "I believe he's going to do that. I have a lot of confidence in him."
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