Football: Sunseri needs more time to prove himself

By Mike Furlong

Here we are again, watching a Pitt football team that isn’t meeting the high — or… Here we are again, watching a Pitt football team that isn’t meeting the high — or high-octane — expectations of its fan base.

Just a few short weeks ago, Panther fans seemed full of excitement and hope for Pitt football, believing that Pitt could win an outright Big East Championship and clinch a berth to a BCS bowl game.

The sudden change of attitude from excitement for the season to anger at new head coach Todd Graham, his system and the team shouldn’t come as a surprise to those of us that have watched Pitt sports for more than one or two years. When haven’t fans protested at the supposed incompetence of a team’s players and coaches?

It seems like the latest hot issue for football fans is redshirt junior quarterback Tino Sunseri. Through four games, Sunseri has completed 82 of his 126 passes for 823 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions.

In the same four games during which Sunseri completed 65.1 percent of his passes, he’s played through increasingly frequent and intense bouts of “boos” from Pitt fans.

So far, first-year head coach Graham has stood by his quarterback. Graham seems more realistic than the average Pitt faithful. It was wishful thinking at best to think that Sunseri could power up the offense early on in the season.

Despite the fact that he’s a redshirt junior who started last season, Sunseri is essentially a first-year player again as he operates a completely new offensive system.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that Pitt fans have booed their own players at Heinz Field.

During the 2008 season, then-redshirt-junior Bill Stull was quite the opposite of a fan favorite. Fans heckled Stull with boos during that season and repeatedly questioned his starting position based on his apparent lack of football intelligence, poor arm strength and lack of effort. To be fair, Stull only completed 57 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions than touchdowns.

But guess what? The following season Stull emerged as an effective presence under center for the Panthers, as he led a 9-3 team to the Meineke Car Care Bowl and a win against North Carolina.

Stull finished that season ranked 11th in the NCAA in passer rating. He threw for 21 touchdowns and just eight

interceptions. That team lost two tough games down the stretch by a combined four points to West Virginia and Cincinnati, preventing the Panthers from reaching a BCS bowl.

The moral of this story is to avoid jumping on an offense’s leader so early in a season.

I don’t think that Stull and Sunseri are equal quarterbacks. I always saw Stull as a better leader and Sunseri a better quarterback, due to his athleticism and arm strength. Yet I do believe Sunseri can grow into the role of a team leader.

But until Sunseri jells with the new offensive system and builds chemistry with all of the new personnel on the offensive side of the ball, many Pitt fans will continue to express their unhappiness with him.

Between now and the end of the season, there will likely be plenty for the “boo-birds” to squawk at concerning Sunseri and the Panthers. Sunseri will throw interceptions, he will be sacked, he will make some bad throws and, yes, he will most likely be a part of more losses.

At the same time, I expect to see Sunseri build chemistry with a group of receivers and tight ends who are all returning next season.

Sunseri might not have a bond like Stull had with Dorin Dickerson and Jonathan Baldwin, but with players like Devin Street, Mike Shanahan, Cameron Saddler and Hubie Graham, he might be able to lead a potent offensive attack that can complement the rushing ability of Ray Graham.

All it takes is more than a few weeks of running Todd Graham’s offensive system in order to showcase those abilities.

When the 2011 season comes to an end, Sunseri will remain the starting quarterback and will go into his senior year prepared to lead a more experienced team towards a Big East title. And maybe along the way, he will prove his doubters wrong.