PITTSBURGH – Nobody at Pitt seems to think it's a big deal.
The No. 15 Panthers begin one of the nation's toughest nonconference schedules Thursday at Utah, in a stadium where the home team hasn't lost in three years. They'll go there with a quarterback who's never started a major college game.
Tino Sunseri, a redshirt sophomore, has thrown all of 17 college passes. He's never stepped into a stadium knowing that his team's success that day rested largely on his play. He's never thrown a touchdown pass that's won a college game, or thrown an interception that's lost it.
Still, the Panthers don't seem to be the least bit worried that Sunseri's inexperience is a glaring negative going into one of the toughest road openers in school history.
"Everybody has to start somewhere," Sunseri said. "Look at all the great quarterbacks who come out, Colt McCoy, all those other guys. They had to start and play some teams. I'd rather play one of the teams that's good rather than a bad one."
Sunseri's confidence and calmness were praised by teammates even when he struggled at times during preseason camp; in one scrimmage, the Pitt offense ran 100 plays and scored only once.
Maybe it's his upbringing as the son of Sal Sunseri, a former star linebacker at Pitt who's now the assistant head coach and linebackers coach at No. 1-ranked Alabama. Or maybe it's the athleticism he inherited from mom Roxann, a former all-Big East gymnast at Pitt. Or the ability to handle pressure that he showed while leading Pittsburgh Central Catholic, Dan Marino's alma mater, to an unbeaten season and Pennsylvania state championship in 2007.
"Tino's a team guy, and I think that comes back to being a coach's son," Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti said. "He understands the team concept. He's going to do what's best for the team. Tino knows what's expected of him. He's very comfortable with the playbook, and he had a great summer. It's just a matter of when, how soon is it going to happen for him?"
Sunseri's answer: Very soon.
"I don't need baby steps," he said. "This is my third year here. I think we understand what we have here. ... We need to play smart football, don't turn the ball over, don't commit penalties. We understand we have some athletes, a good defense."
Sunseri felt like he was ready to play last season, but Pitt already had two-year starter Bill Stull in place, and he went on to have by far his best college season. So Sunseri sat along with fellow backup Pat Bostick, whose last two starts were road victories against Notre Dame and then-No. 2 West Virginia.
"Tino is ready," wide receiver Jon Baldwin said. "He could have been playing last year. He's very mature. Sitting behind Bill, he learned a lot from him and Pat Bostick. He took a lot out of those guys."
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Sunseri also understands the burden of being the big yardage producer won't be on him. Instead, running back Dion Lewis — coming off a 1,799-yard season as a freshman — will get most of the attention from opposing defenses.
Sunseri also has an accomplished receiver to target in Baldwin, who made 57 catches last season, eight for touchdowns.
No, Sunseri doesn't have to do it by himself.
"It's really comforting to have a guy like Dion behind you, and a guy split out wide like Jonathan Baldwin," Sunseri said. "We've just got to be able to give them the ball and move and score points."
Sunseri spent the entire summer working with his receivers, working out, getting to know the new players. He worked on his accuracy, his arm strength and his footwork, all while taking only four days off. He didn't need to work on his competitiveness.
Now comes the hard part: Playing games.
"I've been around him long enough to know this kid's a winner," Cignetti said. "Quarterbacks make mistakes, and they're going to make great plays. I'm a firm believer as a play caller that you have to have that commitment to the run game, but you also have to be balanced in your run and pass. ... Tino might actually give us a dimension we didn't have last year. I'm really looking forward to where we can take this offense."