With the departure of Bill Stull, who had a fantastic breakthrough 2009 campaign, it was assumed by many that Pat Bostick would make the smooth transition back under center for the Panthers.
But Tino Sunseri had other ideas.
The most intriguing question facing Dave Wannstedt’s team entering spring practice was who would assume the starting quarterback duties for the regular-season opener. Sunseri, who was the backup to Stull last season while Bostick redshirted, impressed Wannie enough to get the nod at Utah on September 2.
The redshirt sophomore saw action only in mop-up duty in 2009, where he completed 10 of 17 passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns. But throughout spring camp he displayed his live arm, good mobility and strong understanding of the game to persuade the coaching staff that the offense will be in good hands with him under center.
It also won’t hurt that he will be leading a unit that possesses not only one of the best wide receivers in the country but also one of the best running backs, as well.
In Jonathan Baldwin, Sunseri has a 6-5, 225-pound target with a 42-inch vertical and sub-4.4 speed — a near-impossible matchup for an opposing defensive back. The likely first-round draft pick and leading candidate for the Biletnikoff Award caught 57 balls for 1,111 yards and eight touchdowns yards last season, and he is on pace to start being mentioned in the same conversation as former Pitt great Larry Fitzgerald.
When Sunseri isn’t finding Baldwin striding down the field, Dion Lewis will be looking to eclipse his 1,799 yards and 17 scores as a freshman and show the college football world that he is indeed the best running back in the land. The reigning Big East offensive player of the year carried the rock an astounding 325 times as a freshman, and he’ll be spelled by the talented Ray Graham to keep the Panthers offense rolling even when he needs a breather. It’s a bit of a wonder that Graham didn’t transfer, as he easily could start for just about any other school after rushing for 349 yards on 61 attempts as a freshman.
Although there are questions on the offensive line at center and guard, senior left tackle Jason Pinkston will protect Sunseri’s blind spot and will be an invaluable piece to the offense. The interior of the line is the key to the operation, however, so it will be vital for some new faces to step up — especially after losing superb blocking tight end Nate Byham.
In terms of Sunseri’s development as a passer and a decision-maker, having an offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti Jr. who can flat-out develop quarterbacks will be perfect for the first-year starter. Just think back to how well Stull performed a year ago when questions surrounded the quarterback position entering fall camp.
While much of the optimism surrounding Sunseri is based on his potential, it’s difficult to see how he won’t succeed given his excellent surrounding cast. He has a chance to be one of the better offensive players in the Big East this year because of his fellow skill-position players alone.
With a defense led by ends Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus, and a linebacking corps led by Dan Mason that has big-play capability, the Panthers are primed for a Big East championship. And Wannstedt knows that with perhaps the best all-around individual talent in the league, sooner or later the Panthers will need to validate that skill by winning a league title.
Sunseri and the Panthers face a very difficult opening-week task at Utah, however — the toughest opener of any Big East team. The Utes are talented and rarely lose at home. Will breaking in a new signal-caller be difficult?
While all expectations are that Sunseri will be up to the task, if 2009 was any indication, it won’t matter who is under center for the Panthers — they’ll be efficient and fun to watch every Saturday.
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