A forgettable 2011 season rife with criticism from former Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham may have left a weaker quarterback bruised, battered and possibly contemplating leaving the sport. But for Tino Sunseri, this season provides a chance to grow. In a blue-collar city of tireless workers, Sunseri has developed thick enough skin to put last season in the rear-view mirror.
After the loss of running back Ray Graham, the Panthers wilted down the stretch dropping three of their final five games. In a season-ending 28-6 defeat to SMU in the BBVA Compass Bowl, Pitt had just 10 rushing yards and 210 yards of total offense.
Sunseri didn't fit well in Graham's option-read, shotgun offense. He often held onto the ball too long and took avoidable sacks. In Sunseri's defense, he had little time to throw and his receivers weren't tailored to Graham's three and four-wide sets. Sal Sunseri, the defensive coordinator at Tennessee and a former defensive line coach with the Carolina Panthers, vehemently defended his son in the face of heavy criticism.
“What they were doing wasn't sound,” Sal Sunseri told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in April. “Those types of players (for a spread) aren't there.”
Even when Sunseri flourished, he still couldn't appease his former coach. Graham, who left for Arizona State in December, described Sunseri's 419-yard performance last season against Connecticut as merely “average.” The 6-2, 215 pound quarterback ended 2011-2012 with more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10). Somehow, though, Sunseri managed to take away a few positives from the season.
"I look at it as he was challenging me every single day to be the best I possibly could be," Sunseri told the Tribune-Review last January. "When he was challenging me, he, obviously, knew I could do better or he thought I did something wrong. I want to be a sponge and take in certain information and play and learn from it."
Under first-year coach Paul Chryst, Sunseri will return to his comfort zone in a pro-style offense the Panthers ran in 2010. It's the system Sunseri was recruited to play in by former Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt. Sunseri says he grew the most under Frank Cignetti, Wannstedt's offensive coordinator. Cignetti helped Sunseri remain even-keeled after mistakes and quickly erase the sour memory of intercepted passes. As a result, Sunseri finished with more than 2,500 passing yards, 16 touchdowns and just nine interceptions – easily his best season at Pitt.
Brooks Bollinger, a six-year NFL veteran and the quarterbacks coach at Pitt, has been pleased with Sunseri's attentiveness to detail in the meetings and on the practice field.
“He continues to get the details right and do the small things right,” Bollinger said. “Right now we've got a lot of stuff in. We're putting a lot on him and we expect him to grind through and detail each one of those things.”
Chryst also uses the term grind to describe the senior quarterback's approach to mastering the offense.
“I like his approach right now,” Chryst said. “If you can keep learning and keep grinding out the process, he's going to grow. But we're not where we want to be. And he's not, and he knows that.”
Sunseri appears excited to play under a no-nonsense coach who places high demands on his quarterbacks. Sunseri knows he won't be judged on his performance in the film room, but on the field where the Panthers expect to improve on their 6-7 record from 2011.
“His motto is ‘put it on tape,' and I really like that motto,” Sunseri said. “You can sit in the film room as much as you want and say that you understand most of everything that's going on, but unless you put it on tape it really doesn't matter. Guys have really embraced that role.”
For more up-to-the-minute news and analysis on the Big East, follow bloggers Evan Hilbert and Matt Rybaltowski @CBSBigEast.