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Pitt

QB Kenny Pickett, Pitt already looking ahead to 2018 after upset of Miami

Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017, 8:35 p.m.

Kenny Pickett gave himself the weekend to rest, recover and rejoice. After that, the real world and all its expectations return.

“Back to work Monday,” he said. “Getting ready for next season.”

Never mind that the opener against Albany on Sept. 1, 2018, is 278 days away. Pickett created a mountain of expectations by throwing for 435 yards in the season's final two games, a close loss to No. 25 Virginia Tech and a rousing upset of No. 2 Miami.

Combined record of the two foes: 19-4.

Coach Pat Narduzzi spent the past seven weeks looking for a quarterback. Perhaps the search has ended.

Pickett, a first-year freshman, barely was considered before senior Max Browne had season-ending shoulder surgery. Even then, Ben DiNucci, a third-year sophomore, started five games while Pickett learned and honed his craft.

Why not turn to Pickett sooner, especially when Narduzzi admitted the younger player is the better passer?

Fair question.

Pickett played against N.C. State on Oct. 14, a week after Browne's season-ending injury. He completed 5 of 13 passes for 61 yards. He didn't look ready.

“You saw some things that we needed to clean up,” Narduzzi said. “We had a couple of weeks to clean it up.”

Fair answer.

Entering spring practice, Narduzzi will insist there's competition among everyone at every position. But it's Pickett's job, with DiNucci giving Pitt a backup with starting experience.

The third quarterback, redshirt freshman Thomas MacVittie, could battle DiNucci for the No. 1 backup job — unless he finds a better opportunity on another campus.

In any case, even if someone transfers, Pitt will have plenty of quarterbacks, assuming current high school senior Nick Patti fulfills his verbal pledge and signs a letter of intent.

The good news is Narduzzi won't have to find a transfer quarterback next year. In four of the past five seasons, Pitt's regular quarterback has been a transfer.

Elsewhere in the starting lineup, Pitt will have experience on both sides of the ball. Of the 24 players who started against Miami, only five exhausted their eligibility: Wide receiver Jester Weah, left guard Alex Officer, right tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith, cornerback Avonte Maddox and punter Ryan Winslow.

Two others — left tackle Brian O'Neill and safety Jordan Whitehead — may consider their NFL options and seriously will be missed if they leave.

O'Neill's loss would leave only two starters returning on the offensive line: right guard Alex Bookser and center Jimmy Morrissey. Whitehead is the best player on defense.

O'Neill said last week he didn't plan to think about the NFL until the season ends. After the Miami game, he talked about how the victory will “springboard” Pitt into “a great offseason and kind of where we want to go as a program.”

“We can still be there at the top of this conference. It's definitely a big confidence boost for everyone.”

All five running backs are eligible to return, including leading rushers and seniors-to-be Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison. Freshmen A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley have yet to flash their potential.

Pitt will need its young wide receivers to step up, likewise seniors-to-be Quadree Henderson and Rafael Araujo-Lopes, who combined for 60 receptions. Tre Tipton may help in his return from an offseason knee injury.

On defense, an inexperienced group suddenly looks good. Ten of the 11 starters return, and nine will be seniors or juniors. But the search for consistency is an ongoing effort.

There are plenty of options at safety — none as good as Whitehead — but maybe fans will get their wish and we will see a Damar Hamlin/Paris Ford combination. Ford was the gem of the 2017 recruiting class, but was redshirted after missing much of training camp while dealing with academic issues.

Sophomore Dane Jackson started every game at cornerback and was second on the team with nine pass breakups.

There is depth at linebacker, too, with all three starters — Seun Idowu, Saleem Brightwell and Elijah Zeise — coming back. Meanwhile, Narduzzi has said Quintin Wirginis, who missed the entire season with a suspension and knee injury, is expected to be the starting middle linebacker.

Expectations will be high next year — as they should be — but this is still a team that was 2-5 at one time and overall lost two more than it won.

No one needs to remind Narduzzi that Pitt (5-7, 3-5 ACC) took a step back from his two 8-5 seasons.

“We'll look at the tape and find out what was good, what was bad,” he said after the Miami game. “I'm sure there are some plays we're going to knock ourselves in the head about.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

Pitt's Jester Weah celebrates with quarterback Kenny Pickett after  beating No. 2 Miami on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Jester Weah celebrates with quarterback Kenny Pickett after beating No. 2 Miami on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett celebrates with students after  beating No. 2 Miami on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett celebrates with students after beating No. 2 Miami on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, at Heinz Field.
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