Kevin Gorman: Pitt QB Kenny Pickett has highest expectations for encore
Pat Narduzzi answered questions for 25 minutes Thursday at Pitt football media day before anyone asked the Panthers coach about Kenny Pickett, the hero of the upset of No. 2 Miami last fall.
Pickett has made one career start at quarterback, yet appears to be the least of Pitt’s concerns. There is widespread confidence that the Panthers are set at the most important position in college football.
After completing 18 of 29 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown and rushing 13 times for 60 yards and two touchdowns, including the winner on a 22-yard bootleg on fourth-and-6 in the 24-14 victory over Miami on Nov. 24 at Heinz Field, it’s no longer about whether Pickett can play.
Rather, it’s about what he will do for an encore.
“We’ll find out on game day,” Narduzzi said. “That bar’s up there, as far as where he set it against No. 2 Miami. That’s what everybody is expecting on Sept. 1 (against Albany), so he’s got to go out and deliver that. Anything less than that, everybody is probably going to be like, ‘Oh, man!’ Kenny’s a great kid, a great player. He’s a leader out there on the field – I’ve said it 100 times – and our team trusts in Kenny Pickett.”
No Pitt player echoed that sentiment more emphatically than wide receiver Tre Tipton, who told a story about how a precocious Pickett announced his arrival as an early enrollee the spring before his freshman year. The Panthers were practicing scripted plays, and the defense kept picking off Pickett’s passes. So, Pickett pulled Tipton aside, ordered him to run a different route and delivered on his promise of a touchdown.
“Kenny Pickett, in his head, has been the guy since he walked onto this campus,” said Tipton, a redshirt junior from Apollo-Ridge. “Once he got here, he made sure we all knew his name.”
Tipton said Pickett got chewed out by coaches for that audible, but earned the respect of everyone for treating every practice with the scout team as an audition for the starting job. Instead, the Panthers started Southern Cal graduate transfer Max Browne until he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, then Pine-Richland graduate Ben DiNucci, hoping to preserve Pickett for a redshirt.
“My goal every week was to tear up that defense,” Pickett said. “I told myself I was going to be seen by the coaches because I was going to be tearing up that defense. You put in the hard work. Hard-working people don’t get lucky. I’m a true believer in that. We’re not going to be lucky this season.”
Finally, Pitt pulled Pickett’s redshirt in Week 6 at Syracuse, then played him against N.C. State and at Virginia Tech before giving him the start in the season finale. Now, he’s become the face of the program and a player for whom the Panthers are projecting the highest honors.
“Kenny Pickett is going to win a Heisman,” Tipton said. “I truly believe that. He’s the best quarterback I ever saw.”
Most college quarterbacks would crumble under the weight of such expectations, but Pickett embraces them. Pickett said the biggest perk of being ordained the starting quarterback is that he’s become a vocal leader, one whose work ethic is evidenced by his training camp days starting at 6:30 a.m. and ending 15 hours later.
Asked if the bar had been set impossibly high by his performance against Miami, Pickett simply shrugged.
“I don’t think so,” Pickett said. “I could have played a lot better in that game, if you ask me. My standards are incredibly high, and my expectations have always been higher than anybody’s had for me. Whatever everyone else’s expectations are, I guarantee mine are higher.”
No wonder Pickett called Pitt’s 5-7 record last season “embarrassing,” believing that his confidence is contagious and that the Panthers will gravitate toward his cocksure attitude like a magnet. Pickett swears he’s been this way since he was a 5-foot-7, 130-pounder at age 14 who proclaimed that he would become a Division I quarterback.
Sure, Pickett has been placed on a pedestal by the Panthers. But he earned it, with charisma and confidence in a historic victory. There’s more to do. It’s pointed out to Pickett that Pitt, after stunning the nation’s No. 2 team in successive seasons, still hasn’t beaten No. 1.
“We’re still not the No. 1 team in the country,” Pickett said, “so there is no congratulations for being in the top 25, there is no pat on the back for beating the No. 2 team in the country when you don’t go to a bowl game after that. Being the top team is obviously the goal. Being ACC champions is obviously the goal. We’ve been preaching that ever since I got here and even before I got here, so we have that in our sights.”
Pitt offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has pushed Pickett to continue to develop and keep proving himself so that his hard work will pay off.
“He’s got the right mindset: He doesn’t think he’s arrived – he’s not that kind of person – he knows his game has to be developed,” Watson said. “He’s a perfectionist. The neat thing about him, he’s chasing perfection the right way.”
Pickett is setting the bar for the Panthers by raising their level of expectations to meet his own, where nothing is impossible.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.