Wannstedt showing no worries as tough opener nears

Season openers aren’t supposed to be this difficult for a team
such as No. 15 Pittsburgh.

The Panthers are going into Thursday night’s game at Utah with a
first-time starting quarterback (Tino Sunseri), a center who went
on scholarship only last week (Alex Karabin), two new starting
cornerbacks (Ricky Gary and Antwuan Reed), plus a new middle
linebacker (Dan Mason).

That’s a lot of inexperience to take into a stadium where the
home team hasn’t lost in three years.

With only one senior who’s a returning starter on offense – left
tackle Jason Pinkston – it’s by far the youngest of the six teams
Dave Wannstedt has coached at his alma mater.

Still, if Wannstedt is overly worried about Pitt’s first road
opener since 1993, he’s not showing it. He is convinced that
difficult games like this one, plus upcoming non-conference games
against No. 13 Miami and Notre Dame, will illustrate the depth and
talent that has been building at Pitt for several seasons.

That’s why Wannstedt decided such an opener would be only
beneficial, not detrimental, as Pitt tries to follow up on its
first 10-win season since 1981.

”I think that whether you have 25 seniors or you have nine
seniors, it’s the quality,” Wannstedt said Monday. ”What is this
group made up of? And when we hit the adversity, which every team
hits every year, I believe our guys will respond the right way.
Sometimes being a little bit younger, kids are excited about the
opportunity to play, and they’re more focused on what they should
be focused on. … And we’ve reached the point where there won’t be
too many freshmen that play unless we need them.”

Sunseri, a redshirt sophomore, has thrown only 17 passes in the
regular season, but his teammates said they’re comfortable with
Sunseri running Wannstedt’s pro-style offense. Bill Stull had to
beat out Sunseri a year ago to keep his starting job, and Stull
went on to become the all-Big East quarterback.

”He brings an air of confidence to the huddle, and we respond
positively off his attitude. It was the same with Bill last year,
and he had a great year. We expect Tino to have the same,”
fullback Henry Hynoski said. ”He brings big-play capability to our
offense, because of his arm strength, so that’s another factor for
us.”

To guard against Sunseri getting too worked up for his first
regular season start, Wannstedt sat him down a few days ago and
reminded him what’s expected of him.

”I gave him a few stories of other quarterbacks, both on this
level and the NFL, that were starting off their careers for the
first time,” said Wannstedt, the former Bears and Dolphins coach.
”I really wanted to make the point to him that he’s one of 11
players on offense. We’re not the type of offense where Tino’s the
only one who needs to make plays. … I want him to have the
mindset of being confident, but also going into this game feeling
that there’s no more of a burden on his shoulder to carry than any
other player on offense.”

Utah’s spread offense has consumed much of Pitt’s preparation
time, although Wannstedt said both West Virginia and South Florida
run similar formations and plays. Pitt held West Virginia to a
combined 43 points the last three seasons, winning twice.

While Pitt is mostly inexperienced in the secondary, defensive
ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard are coming off big seasons and
nose tackle Myles Caragein had five sacks as a backup. Mason, who
replaces Adam Gunn at middle linebacker, had a strong training
camp.

”They spread you out,” Wannstedt said of the Utes, who
averaged 30.5 points in six home games last season. ”They have a
lot of screens, a run game; they do a good job of mixing it up. …
They have a lot of offense. A lot of the stuff we’ve been working
on in preparation for Utah will carry on all season for our
team.”

However, Wannstedt said, no team truly knows how it will play
until the first game that counts.

”We have a good plan,” he said. ”Everybody has a good plan
until you get hit in the mouth. Then you see how good the plan
is.”