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May 19, 2010

Sunseri steps into leading role at Pitt

Protecting his children is a father's strongest instinct. Smashing a quarterback is a linebacker's greatest thrill.

So imagine the inner turmoil of Alabama linebackers coach Sal Sunseri, once an All-American linebacker at Pittsburgh, if the Crimson Tide faced his alma mater in an important game.

Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri is Sal's son. Would the instincts of a protector compromise the nature of a predator?

No way.

"They'd be bringing it from all angles," Tino Sunseri said with nonchalance. "But I have confidence in our offensive line."

That kind of poise will serve Tino well as he moves into Pitt's starting lineup. As the successor to All-Big East quarterback Bill Stull, he'll direct an offense that averaged 32.1 points last season and returns an elite running back (Dion Lewis), receiver (Jonathan Baldwin) and tackle (Jason Pinkston).

Tino Sunseri's performance could mean the difference between another good season for the Panthers or a Big East championship -- perhaps even a shot at a national title.

"We talk about going from good to great, but we have a lot of work ahead of us," Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti said. "We feel we can be a very effective and efficient offense. We feel we can be very balanced in the run and pass. As long as we can protect the football, we could be very good."

Sunseri, a sophomore who has thrown 17 college passes, is charged with protecting the football, avoiding turnovers, managing the game -- and consequently leading Pitt's championship aspirations.

"I don't know if so much depends on me," Tino said. "It's about our team as a whole. The offensive line is a huge part. They have to open lanes for Dion and provide protection for me so Jonathan and our other receivers can run downfield. If it happens that we lose containment, I need to make plays on my feet to extend the play and make a throw downfield. We just have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best on every play."

Obviously, complete success isn't going to depend on one player, not even the quarterback. But erratic quarterback play was the primary reason Pittsburgh didn't meet expectations in 2007 and '08.

The Panthers didn't challenge for the Big East title until Stull elevated his play. In '08, he threw more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (nine). But last season, he threw 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions while improving his passing percentage and passing yardage.

Pitt can't afford to take a step back at quarterback. If Sunseri is successful, the Panthers could be among the best teams in the country. If he isn't, another Meineke Car Care Bowl appearance may be in store.

That's more pressure than a blitzing Alabama linebacker could apply.

The new guy
Pittsburgh is one of six teams likely to open the season in the top 25 that will be breaking in a new starting quarterback. Here's a look at the six:

The new starter: Junior John Brantley
The buzz: Brantley is a prototypical pocket passer and certainly doesn't have the running skills of predecessor Tim Tebow. But he will be protected by one of the country's best offensive lines and has a stable of solid backs. Florida has some talent at receiver, but it's young and inexperienced, for the most part.

Penn State
The new starter: Sophomore Kevin Newsome
The buzz: Newsome arrived on campus as a highly touted signee, but he struggled during spring drills and will have to hold off sophomore Matt McGloin, a former walk-on, this summer. Newsome has good mobility, while McGloin is more of a pocket passer. The running game should be strong with Evan Royster and Stephfon Green, and there is a solid group of receivers. But both starting tackles are new, leading to some questions about the line.

The new starter: Sophomore Tino Sunseri
The buzz: The Panthers will be the preseason favorite in the Big East, thanks to RB Dion Lewis, WR Jonathan Baldwin, OT Jason Pinkston and a solid defense. Avoiding mistakes will be Sunseri's No. 1 priority.

The new starter: Senior Nate Costa
The buzz: Jeremiah Masoli was supposed to lead the Ducks, but he was suspended for the season for off-field issues. Enter Costa, an oft-injured fifth-year senior. He doesn't have to be a star, just a steady hand at the controls. The Ducks have one of the best running backs in the nation in LaMichael James, WR Jeff Maehl is solid and the line returns all five starters.

Oregon State
The new starter: Sophomore Ryan Katz
The buzz: Katz has weapons behind him -- RB Jacquizz Rodgers -- and on the outside -- WR James Rodgers. There's also an experienced line in front of him, headed by T Michael Philipp and C Alex Linnenkohl. But it will be difficult to get off to a quick start with games against TCU, Boise State and Arizona State in the first month.

The new starter: Sophomore Garrett Gilbert
The buzz: The son of a former NFL quarterback, Gilbert was a highly regarded high school prospect who showed great promise in the national championship game in January. He had a rough start when pressed into duty in place of injured Colt McCoy, but had a strong second half with two touchdown passes against Alabama. Texas is striving to upgrade its running game in part to help ease Gilbert's transition into the starting lineup.

At least Sunseri doesn't have to worry about that. The only postseason game that matches SEC and Big East teams is the second-tier Papajohns.com Bowl. There doesn't seem to be much chance that both teams land in that game. But they could meet in a BCS bowl. Alabama is the defending national champion and is the preseason favorite in the SEC. Pittsburgh won 10 games last season and its three losses were by a combined 12 points.

The Panthers' offense features Lewis, who rushed for 1,799 yards as a freshman last season, and Baldwin, who averaged more yards per catch (19.5) than any returning receiver with at least 50 receptions in '09. Pinkston earned All-America recognition. It's up to Sunseri to make sure they can do their job to the best of their ability.

That's a daunting responsibility, but he appears unfazed. "I've always had the motto: 'Don't feel pressure, apply pressure,' " he said.

That attitude is a family value and reveals why Sal Sunseri says his son plays with a linebacker's mentality.

"He has the toughness of a linebacker playing quarterback," Sal said. "He understands the toughness of the game, mentally and physically. He understands the importance of taking care of the football and managing the game. He understands that sometimes you're going to get hit and you've got to get up. He doesn't mind blocking, either."

There was a time when Sal thought his oldest son would be blocking all the time.

"When he was little, he was thicker, and I thought he'd be an offensive lineman," Sal said.

That was before Tino's seventh-grade year, when a coach saw him throwing the football and noted his arm strength. Just like that, he was a quarterback. A few years later, he attended Nick Saban's camp at LSU. When Sal was coaching for the NFL's Carolina Panthers, Tino received instruction from quarterback Jake Delhomme and then-Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning, who now is with the Miami Dolphins.

Tino eventually went on to lead Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School to a 16-0 record and a state title as a senior. That school also produced NFL quarterbacks Dan Marino and Marc Bulger, who have both called to offer advice and encouragement.

"I've talked to them and I've learned from them," Tino said. "Why not learn from anyone who has had success? Why not learn from the best?"

More than anyone, though, Tino has learned from his father. Sal starred at Pitt from 1979-81, a terrific stretch in which the Panthers posted three consecutive 11-1 finishes.

"You learn about the work ethic you have to bring every single day," Tino said. "My dad was an overachiever. I learned from him, and that made me work as hard as he does."

Cignetti, who lauds Tino's leadership skills and passing ability, said the lessons have been learned quite well.

"He's very well-prepared for the task at hand," Cignetti said. "Now, we are very fortunate to have a very good supporting cast around him. He's prepared well to perform great with the supporting cast around him. I know Tino is looking forward to his opportunity.

"He will do a good job. When his dad says he plays like a linebacker, he means that he understands game management. That's one area where Tino has made tremendous strides. He's also become a decisive decision-maker. He understands play design and understands his reads. He's learned to be a decisive decision-maker ... and limit turnovers."

A look at his father's squad shows what a capable game manager can mean to a team.

Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy was a first-year starter last season. He didn't make any All-SEC teams and only ranked 82nd in the nation in passing. But McElroy passed for 17 touchdowns with only four interceptions in helping the Crimson Tide win the national championship.

Tino Sunseri would like to think something similar could happen for his team. But as a true leader, he wants the Panthers only looking ahead to the Sept. 2 season opener at Utah.

"You can always talk about [championships]," he said. "You have to be able to speak it to believe it. But I want to make sure our first priority is Utah. We want to make sure we come out fast and strong."

Of course, the Panthers want to finish strong, too.

And though he strives to remain focused on personal improvement and leading Pitt, surely there are times when Tino Sunseri ponders the possibility of playing a big game with his father on the opposing sideline.

"That would be a perfect scenario for my mother," Tino said. "She would enjoy it up in the stands, with me on one side and my dad on the other. That would be interesting in the Sunseri household."

No doubt, Sal would want that, too. A loving father always wants his child to be successful -- well, up to a point.

If the Panthers and Tide met, the only protection Tino would get from blitzing linebackers would come from Pitt's offensive line.

"You always have love for your child," Sal Sunseri said. "But if that would ever happen, he'd better be prepared."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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