- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Bill Stull is 11-4 as the Pittsburgh starting quarterback, yet most Panthers fans wanted to run him out of town after a late-season funk last year that culminated in an awful Sun Bowl performance. Stull was even booed by his home fans in the first game of the season.
The critics, though, have been quieted by the fifth-year senior's solid play in 2009. He's completed 70 percent of his passes and has six touchdowns against just one interception while leading his team to a 3-0 record. Stull will take the Panthers to NC State this weekend, but first he took some time for our weekly Friday Q&A:
How confident is the team right now after this impressive 3-0 start?
Bill Stull: The team feels real good right now. Obviously, the offense is playing and performing to the best of our ability right now. It seems like everyone is coming together, which is very exciting. The defense is playing well. They bounced back from a not-so-good game against Buffalo and helped us out a lot against Navy. Special teams is playing well too.
We've just got to realize that each week, we're going to be playing a better team and we've got to keep bringing our A-game and playing Pitt football. This week we're going to really focus on minimizing turnovers, which we've done a very good job of. Penalties and fumbles and turnovers are obviously drive-killers and game-changing moments, and as the season progresses and we play better opponents, we might not be able to come back from those type of things.
It's hard not to notice your numbers so far. What do you think you're doing better this season?
BS: One thing [offensive coordinator Frank] Cignetti stresses and we've been teaching ever since he came here last spring is making clear decisive decisions. And what that means is just getting the ball out quickly and obviously to the right guy. Most of our reads are progression reads. We have one, two, three, maybe four and sometimes five different playmakers on the field that can possibly get the ball. And my job as quarterback is obviously to distribute the ball to the playmakers, going through my progressions according to the defensive look.
I think this year, I've really focused on my starting point for each play. I think I've just protected the ball really well and given our playmakers a chance to make some big plays. The main thing for me is I think I've made fast decisions, getting the ball out quick, which really helps on the sacks. The quarterback is the really the last person to save a sack if he throws it away or makes a quick checkdown throw.
How did you improve your decision-making?
BS: It's hard work. We do footwork drills every single day. Coach Cignetti believes in building a quarterback from the feet up. I'm now a believer in that, too. If you throw a bad ball, I now believe, your feet were a little funky, something was a little messed up. We've really stressed footwork and making sure our feet are in the right position to make the throw and different ways to progress through our progressions -- whether that's hitching or sliding in the pocket, things like that.
In the first three games, you didn't need a whole lot from the passing game to win. Do you think that will change as the competition gets better?
BS: I wouldn't say we'll be forced to throw the ball. As everyone knows in the country, Pitt football is based on, and our tradition is, obviously running the football. We're never going to get away from that. I understand that we score points by throwing the ball and making plays downfield, but we win games by having great defense and running the football. We've been doing that for the past I don't know how many years.
Given that philosophy, does that put more pressure on a quarterback not to make a mistake, since you're relying on defense and running the ball?
BS: Yeah, there's more stress. If we run the ball on first and second down and it's third- and-4, you want to pass the ball. But obviously you don't want to force anything. You want to make a clear decisive decision and make a good throw.
Ever since the Sun Bowl, it's been impossible to pick up a newspaper, listen to sports radio, read a blog or whatever without somebody saying, "Get rid of Bill Stull." How did you deal with all that?
BS: Obviously, you can only say that, "I don't hear it" or "I don't look at it" so much. I honestly haven't read anything for a really long time, but I still hear things. People still tell me things. My family members and close friends from Pittsburgh and back home in Youngstown tell me stuff.
You know, it is what it is. You've got to use that as some fuel for motivation to play better. Like anything, you can't let that get to you. The quarterback position is obviously one of the most recognizable positions in all of sports, and you're looked at as a leader whether you like it or not. And your players and coaches feed off the way you handle yourself throughout the game. I think if a quarterback such as myself lets that get to you, then you won't be able to compete to the best of your ability. That's obviously not something I'm going to let get to me, because then my chances for success aren't good. And that's definitely something I'm not going to let happen.
You were booed at home early in the very first game, before people even gave you a chance to see what you could do. What was going through your head then?
BS: You really don't have a choice when there's a sellout, 65,000 people at Heinz Field, not to hear the whole Pitt crowd boo. But you kind of have to laugh it off. I mean, just put that in the back of your mind. Booing me, OK, but I have to worry about this next drive. And actually when I did come back in, we wound up scoring and I think I threw a touchdown pass to Dorin [Dickerson].
Use that as fuel like I said, and something to drive yourself and focus that much harder and prove people wrong. Obviously my objective is not to prove people wrong; my objective is to give my team the best chance to win, and the ultimate goal is to win the football game no matter how it happens.
Do you feel like you have proved people wrong? I get e-mails now from people saying they criticized you before, but now they're glad you're the starter.
BS: It's funny how those things happen. Obviously, people are entitled to their opinion. I'm just thankful I have another opportunity, because I know how things can be when you're injured like I was a couple times last year and the season-ending injury a couple of years ago. So I think I use that to my benefit, because I understand what it feels like to be injured and not be able to play. I use that to my advantage to have more focus and understand that each play could be my last.
What does it feel like knowing that Dave Wannstedt always had your back throughout all the criticism and always said you were his starter?
BS: It's awesome to have a head coach really have that faith in you. You have no choice but to work harder and want to prove him -- the guy who recruited you here, the guy who wanted you be the quarterback in his first recruiting class -- you have no choice but to appreciate those things.
Then again, it's awesome that he's on my side, but I have to go prove him right. Work even harder than I did last year. Work even harder than I did last week, preparing against Navy. This is a different animal we're facing this week. I've got to make sure I'm have my A-game and I've got to make sure I help my teammates bring theirs.