Kenny Pickett starts spring drills as Pitt's No. 1 quarterback
A year ago at this time, Kenny Pickett was a wide-eyed, do-as-your-told, freshman early enrollee.
As for the first session of Pitt's spring practice Monday? Pickett was a different man.
Coach Pat Narduzzi reiterated from the indoor facility at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Monday morning that Pickett is the "clear No. 1 guy." Pickett said his mindset is "a lot different" than it was last spring.
"Having a year under my belt coming in (last) spring was definitely huge," Pickett said. "My progress and my growth, I think you could see it out there today. I was playing a lot more confident this spring than I was last spring, being in the offense once already."
Pickett, as he said, spent last spring "low on the totem pole" behind four more experienced college quarterbacks. Now, not only is Pickett the unquestioned starter, he is the quarterback with the most seniority on the team.
Though Pickett has just four games, 66 attempted passes and one start on his Pitt résumé, what a start that was: 253 yards of offense, three touchdowns accounted for and no interceptions in a season-ending 24-14 win against No. 2 Miami.
Pickett said other than losing some weight then putting it back on to get back to 225 pounds in the 3½ months since the Miami win, his sudden late-season star turn hasn't changed him.
"It's been the same as usual for me," Pickett said. "I haven't changed. After every season, I always pride myself on getting in the weight room the day after the game, the first game back. It's been a habit since I have been a freshman in high school. I have kept the same tradition. It's just business as usual."
Becoming the starting quarterback compelled Pickett to tweak an aspect of his persona: embracing a leadership role. That, of course, is requisite for a starting quarterback no matter how long he's been on campus.
"He's just as a guy for whom football comes easy," Pitt offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "He loves it. He loves to study it. He wants to be a really good player — and that's where it really begins. He's willing to work at it. A lot of guys aren't. A lot of guys say they are, but they don't. He says he does, and then he does it."
Watson said over the winter he put Pickett through a three-point intellectual boot camp of sorts: studying defensive football tendencies, going over in-game situational management and "the nuts and bolts" of the offense's protections and reads.
After last season when Pitt started three quarterbacks and the spring and fall camps were marked by an ongoing quarterback competition, Narduzzi chose to remove any doubt about Pickett this year.
But don't mistake that to mean Narduzzi and Watson aren't inviting competition into the quarterbacks room. Ricky Town — one of the nation's most sought-after quarterback recruits out of high school — signed with Pitt in December as a junior-college transfer.
"Kenny is clearly the No. 1 guy," Narduzzi said, 'but I'll tell you what, Ricky Town does some great things here. He's got a nice arm."
Pickett calls Town "a great guy" whom he'd looked up to while in high school. The pair are already bouncing ideas off each another.
"We will make each other better," Pickett said.
That's exactly what Watson wants to hear.
"I have not been through a season where we haven't (used) two or three quarterbacks," Watson said. "It's usually two we're using every season, so we need a room — not only a starter but a room. If something happens, we can transition to the next guy and we can play at a high level. I do like both guys' character they bring to the table."
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.