Tino Sunseri proved he has a commanding lead on the starting quarterback position this spring. He put up big numbers—35 completions on 55 passing attempts for 416 yards, 2 touchdown passes and an interception.
Todd Graham, when recapping the spring game, said the numbers were good, but said he is not looking for someone just to come in and run the offense, but someone to be a disciple of the offense; someone who can speak on a level and tone with the head coach and the offensive coordinator. That right there will be Sunseri's goal between now and August—regardless of whether there's competition at the quarterback position or not.
"When the quarterback goes out on that field, he needs to be an extension of Coach Magee, Coach Norvell and myself," Graham said. "That means he has to know the offense as well as we do and believe in this system as much as we do. As quarterback, you tend to be a creature of habit, you tend to go back and act the same way that you do in other systems. That position's development is the number one key to our success."
The real battle at this position will be for the backup quarterback, where the coaching staff was willing to give Anthony Gonzalez reps with the second-team during several days of spring football. Despite Mark Myers jamming his thumb with a week remaining in spring drills, it did open the door for Gonzalez to take some additional reps with the second-team. That should not decrease Myers' chances of winning the backup job. Gonzalez, though he was selected as the most improved offensive player through spring drills, proved he still has a ways to go, as he completed just 9-of-26 passes in the spring game, with 2 interceptions.
Interestingly, Graham was more critical of Sunseri in his one interception than he was Gonzalez of his two, proving that he's either harder on the starters, or doesn't want Sunseri to get too comfortable as the starter.
"There were two turnovers that were unacceptable and we can't continue to make those same mistakes," Graham said. "You throw for over 400-yards but there's a whole bunch of missed yardage that you don't see in this offense. He has a lot to learn."
All three quarterbacks face different challenges through this crucial stretch between now and August. Sunseri's goal is to become, as Graham said, a disciple of the system. He's proven he can run the offense. If Saturday was a real game, his completions, passing attempts and passing yards would have all been career-highs. His goal is to become that disciple. If he doesn't, it's still not going to affect his status as a starter. It's just what's required of the system, presumably to win games the way Graham wants to win games.
The backup position is where the real battle will be. The position is similar as to what it was in 2007, but in slightly better shape. Instead of having a first-year starter in Bill Stull like the Panthers had in 2007, they at least have someone in Sunseri who started all 13 games a year ago. That much is good. They do not have any proven experience at the backup position, just like 2007 where Pitt only had freshmen Pat Bostick and Kevan Smith—neither of whom had taken a snap in a college football game. No one could have predicted that Stull would have been injured in the first game of 2007, and lost for the year, so it's definitely worth mentioning here. An injury to Sunseri could be just as devastating to the position.
Additionally, from a depth standpoint, there is no quarterback coming in with the 2011 recruiting class. Not that Graham needed someone to come in and win a starting job, but it is interesting to note that a year ago, Pitt had five quarterbacks with one verbal commit coming in (Gary Nova). Six quarterbacks (Tino Sunseri, Pat Bostick, Andrew Janocko, Anthony Gonzalez, Mark Myers, Gary Nova) were expected to be on the Pitt roster. It's not as if a walk-on like Janocko would win a starting job, but having guys like him and especially Bostick in a meeting room are invaluable. The Panthers should still be in good shape, but number-wise, the position has half the depth that it initially looked like it was going to have.
Both Myers and Gonzalez don't have to be that disciple figure—at least not yet—but they are one play away from having to be that disciple of the system. While the challenge they face between now and August are just to run the offense, or have the best grasp on the offense, it will probably come down to which one produces more in the days leading up to when Graham has to make the decision about which one is the top backup. They both have to keep in the back of their head, somewhere, that they are both one play away from having to be a disciple of the system, as Graham expects of Sunseri, the starter. In addition to that, both players learned one system in their redshirt year, and are now in the midst of learning another. In this case, these two players face a tougher challenge than Sunseri does.
Graham is challenging Sunseri, but he must also be hard on the backups as well. For as crucial a position as quarterback is to him, both Gonzalez and Myers need to be ready.