Football star Tino Sunseri had plenty of options, but in the /files/storyimages/he chose Louisville.
The prep quarterback could have gone to Pittsburgh where his father, Sal, was an All-American linebacker, or he could have decided to play for a school closer to his family in Charlotte, N.C., where his dad tutors the NFL Panthers’ defensive line. Tino could have opted to play for one of his family’s many close friends around the college football world.
Instead, in May, Sunseri committed to play his college football for Louisville’s new head coach Steve Kragthorpe and QB coach Jeff Brohm. His dad, a veteran of the recruiting wars, thinks it was a wise decision.
“Tino was very objective about it and he understands the recruiting process because of all the years we’ve been around college football,” said the elder Sunseri. “I think when you go back and you look at it, people who show you the most interest and show you the most sincerity are the ones you have to look at the hardest when comparing various schools. The next thing you have to do is look at the program and what they have achieved over the past several years. Over the past five seasons, U of L has been very, very successful.”
Of course, Sal (pictured left) knows something about both success and talented quarterbacks. He played alongside Hall of Famer Dan Marino at Pitt, and led the nation’s No. 1 defense twice as the Panthers went 33-3 in his final three seasons. Sunseri coached against plenty of gifted signal-callers as an assistant at LSU and Michigan State, where he earned his reputation as a top-notch recruiter. And for the past five years, he has coached his linemen to disrupt the efforts of the NFL’s best. Based on his experience, he believes his son has what it takes to develop into a fine college player.
Tino Sunseri is a strong pocket passer, but he also has a 4.6 40-yard dash speed (or better) and can do his fair share of damage when he decides to run. Best of all, though, he gets rid of the football quickly, a crucial talent against modern-day defenses.
"I think his best trait is the way he releases the football," Sunseri said. "He has a quick release and the athletic ability to escape pressure. In football today, you don't need to be a statue in the pocket. The other thing that coaches like is his accuracy.
“I had guys like Dan Henning, Mike McCoy and Paul Hackett (veteran NFL coaches) look at Tino on film and asked them how he could improve. There were a few very minor things, most of all increasing his physical strength. And he has to prepare more against combination defensive coverages. That’s just something any young quarterback has to learn.”
Of course, there was a Louisville connection behind the young QB’s decision. Tino attended grade school in the Derby City for three years when his father was a defensive assistant on Ron Cooper’s staff that also included current U of L assistant Greg Nord.
This fall, young Sunseri will pay his senior season at Pittsburgh Central Catholic, Marino’s alma mater. Last year, he led Central (10-2) to the WPIAL semifinals completing 86-of-151 passes (57 percent) for 1,408 yards and 14 touchdowns. He had transferred from Weddington High in Matthews, N.C., back to his family’s hometown where his mother, Roxann, was an all-conference gymnast at Pitt. The move created a bit of a stir, but Sunseri said the change wasn't based on football alone. Far from it.
"We made that decision mostly on academic and social factors. Football was really the third aspect of it,” he explained. “Academically, I wasn't very pleased with what was going on in North Carolina, and I knew that if Tino was going to have a chance to play Division I football and survive at the college level, he would need to get a better structure academically,” he said.
Sunseri’s transition to live with relatives and att/files/storyimages/the strict Catholic institution wasn’t easy.
“It was tough on him the first six months because the studying and everything else was a lot more regimented,” said Sal. “The thing that I was extremely proud about is the first time he took his SAT test, Tino was well over the score that was needed to become academically eligible as a freshman. His outlook and the social environment up there have been outstanding. The football part was a great situation, too, but to me the most important thing was the academics.”
A year from now, Tino will be preparing for his first year under Kragthorpe’s direction. "I never really crossed paths with Coach Kragthorpe," Sunseri said. "I had heard of him - he worked with the Buffalo Bills - and we've talked several times. I understand the offense that he wants to run because I went and watched tape on their offense, and did a thorough study. I would certainly say this is pretty good system for a young man who wants to throw the football."
Tino (pictured left) will join the Cards during Hunter Cantwell's senior season. Bill Ashburn, Tyler Wolfe and Matt Simms are other quarterbacks who are already in the program. But Sunseri said he will work hard to earn some early playing time.
"I’m a hard worker," he said. "I'll be the first one in the football complex to watch films and the last one to leave. With my dad being a coach, I’ve learned a lot about defenses. Most of all, I like to stick in the pocket and throw it all over the field."
The elder Sunseri believes the opportunity to play in games will come as Tino gradually develops his skills.
"Tino still has a year of football to play at Central, and we’re not going to rush the situation,” Sal said. “I want him to develop mentally, physically and go in there and play with confidence. I want him to experience college life and build camaraderie with the other players so he can have tremendous success."
The Sunseri family will find U of L has become a different place since 1997 when they moved away after Cooper was fired.
"It’s amazing how that entire athletic program has changed – not just football. I'm talking about the whole nine yards,” Sal said. “This year, their athletic director Tom Jurich was named the National Athletic Director of the Year, and from what I understand they've won a lot of Big East titles in other sports. So it's a total program right now that the university can be very proud of," said Sunseri.
Of course, coach Bobby Petrino, who guided the Cardinal football squad to an unprecedented 12-1 season and an Orange Bowl Championship, has gone on to take over the Atlanta Falcons. But Sal is confident the new U of L staff is the right one for his son.
"I understand they lost their coach to the pros, but they went out and got another very good coach who has NFL experience,” he said. “I'm extremely excited about Tino's decision, and I'm excited about him going down there and playing for Coach Kragthorpe. To be honest with you, I’m ecstatic.”
NOTE: Von Benko is a contributing writer for Louisville.com. He covers professional football, basketball and baseball and can reached by e-mail at [email protected]. Columnist Ron Steiner is published daily on Louisville.com and can be reached at [email protected].