In and out of huddle, Pitt’s Maurice Ffrench sees Kenny Pickett grow |
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Jerry DiPaola

By car, you can get from New Brunswick to Oakhurst, N.J., near the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in less than hour.

So Maurice Ffrench, a New Brunswick guy, knew all about the quarterback named Kenny Pickett, who was throwing for more than 4,500 yards at Ocean Township High School in Oakhurst.

“He was way more quiet when I first met him, real skinny,” Ffrench said of the now 6-foot-2, 225-pound Pickett. “He wasn’t as tall either.”

But Pickett stands plenty tall in the pocket this season as Pitt’s two-year starting quarterback. Together, Pickett and wide receivers Ffrench and Taysir Mack have connected for more completed passes (91) this season than any trio in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.

Along with a defense that has dropped the opposing quarterback 27 times and intercepted five passes, Pitt’s aerial triumvirate is the team’s best hope for a repeat ACC Coastal championship. The quest resumes Friday night at Syracuse’s Carrier Dome when the Panthers (4-2, 1-1) meet the Orange (3-3, 0-2).

Pickett is second in the ACC in total offense per game (287.2 yards), but his value to the overall effort goes beyond numbers.

Ffrench, who leads the team with 50 catches, has seen Pickett’s growth as a leader from his scholastic days at Ocean to 2017, when he became the first Pitt freshman in 10 years to start at quarterback, to the current season, when he has engineered two fourth-quarter rallies to keep his team relevant in the ACC.

“He’s always been confident, always been confident,” Ffrench said, repeating the words to make a point. “Coming into college, you’re a freshman (and) you don’t want to be the person in the front talking or taking control of the huddle.”

But Pickett was different as a 19-year-old freshman.

“Over the years from his start against Miami (a 24-14 victory against the No. 2 Hurricanes), he definitely grew, got way more confident, stronger, smarter and just taking (control of) the huddle.”

Ffrench also has learned something else about Pickett: The huddle is his, and you better respect his standing within it.

“When people are talking, (he says), ‘Be quiet. C’mon, we gotta go.’ When things are way more urgent, he makes sure we all are urgent and on the same page.”

If you’re caught talking out of turn in the huddle, Ffrench describes what happens this way:

“Like your mom just came back, and you’re about to get in trouble.”

That’s the type of strong leadership at the game’s most important position that Pitt has had twice under coach Pat Narduzzi (first with Nathan Peterman in 2015-16).

Peterman had Tyler Boyd, an eventual second-round NFL draft choice, and Jester Weah, whose 10 touchdown receptions were the most at Pitt in 12 years.

But Pickett has Ffrench and Mack, who are on pace to catch more than 180 passes for more than 1,800 yards.

“I don’t try to pay attention to that because then it will change (how he thinks) about the game,” Ffrench said. “Normally, Coach Duzz or somebody on the coaching staff will tell us, and then we just keep working.”

Next up for Pitt’s passing game is a Syracuse defense that is ranked 111th in the FBS and 12th in the ACC against the pass (276.8 yards).

“I never would have expected that,” Ffrench said. “They definitely do well disguising things and giving you all types of different looks to make you think.”

Which is where Ffrench believes he has picked up his game since he was a freshman in 2016 and was part of a 76-61 victory against Syracuse.

“When I was a freshman, I never really watched film. I wrote a lot of stuff down, but a lot of stuff didn’t make sense to me,” he said.

He always has taken tests to gauge his knowledge of the offense, but first-year wide receivers coach Chris Beatty picked it up a notch. Now, the receivers must know the opposing defensive backs’ tendencies, including their stance, where they direct their eyes and how and when they blitz.

“I think differently when I’m out there, so I see things before it happens,” Ffrench said. “He definitely expanded my knowledge with film. I never really thought of breaking film down to somebody’s stance, their eyes.

“He definitely added something to my tool box to help me reach the next level.”

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