Tino, Geno hold keys for West Virginia, Pitt

In the "Geno vs. Tino" debate between West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith and Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri, who has the advantage going into this season? AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

The careers of Geno Smith and Tino Sunseri seem destined to be forever intertwined.

Each quarterback took over as a starter their sophomore years on one side of the Backyard Brawl rivalry in 2010. They have four-letter first names that rhyme. And this spring, both are learning new potentially potent no-huddle offenses.

No single player on either West Virginia or Pittsburgh looms as more important this season than the quarterback. So whichever one masters the controls more adeptly might gain the upper hand in the Geno vs. Tino debate.

So far, it's advantage Smith. A second team All-Big East selection last year, he led all league quarterbacks in completion percentage (64.8), pass efficiency and touchdown-to-interception ratio (24 to 7). He did so despite wearing a brace on his left foot to protect a hairline fracture, which he had surgically repaired in January.

The injury hasn't bothered Smith this spring. He can focus instead on getting offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen's system down. If history is any indicator, Smith could be in line for a monster season. Holgorsen turned Houston's Case Keenum and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden into superstars at the position, and both had less accolades coming in than Smith.

"It excites me as a quarterback," Smith said of Holgorsen's system. "But at the same time, those guys didn't just go out and light it up. They had to work for it. I'm trying to do the same thing and hopefully accomplish what they accomplished."

Holgorsen lauds Smith's smarts and says the junior has shown better mechanics this spring than he expected. Smith still needs to improve his footwork and know the playbook in and out.

"He needs to absorb it to the point where he can start changing things and get into better plays and stuff," Holgorsen said. "His fundamentals are pretty good. You can tell he hangs onto the ball a little too much right now, but that's just because he doesn't understand where exactly to go with it."

Sunseri's numbers (64.5 percent completions, 16 touchdowns, nine interceptions) weren't far behind Smith's, though he struggled in some big games and had a hard time establishing connections on the deep ball. Still, he has fended off challenges this spring from talented redshirt freshmen Mark Myers and Anthony Gonzalez, and head coach Todd Graham thinks Sunseri has the qualities he's looking for in a quarterback.

"Everybody thinks it's the physical tools," Graham said. "But it's the mental aspects -- the leadership, the intangibles, the character. The key for us is having a quarterback who manages the game and takes what the defense gives us."

Graham's highly prolific passers at Tulsa and Rice were guys like Paul Smith, G.J. Kinne and Chase Clement, all of whom were very intelligent if not necessarily physically imposing. Sunseri is in the same mode at a little over 6-feet tall and the son of a coach. Quick thinking is imperative in Graham's hurry-up style.

"Being around the game my entire life, I understand situations and I understand what's expected of me," Sunseri said. "Everything is fast and moving at high octane, but a quarterback needs to be slow and calm in the storm."

But not slow in his decision-making or on his toes. Graham asks his quarterbacks to run in this system, something Sunseri thinks he's capable of doing.

"I'm a guy who can pick up 5-to-10 yards just to keep defenses honest and keep their eyes on me," he said. "Then I can surprise people and pull on a read and maybe break one for a touchdown. I think have enough speed to do that."

Smith won't be asked to run in Holgorsen's system, which he is happy about since he prefers being a pocket passer. If he can manage the position the way previous Holgorsen quarterbacks have, West Virginia won't need that aspect of the game from him. In fact, some have already called Smith a longshot candidate for the Heisman Trophy this year.

"Winning the Heisman is not a goal of mine," Smith said. "I'm just trying to win every game next year."

And maybe keep the upper hand in the Geno vs. Tino debate while he's at it.